05/08/12 – Tiverton School Committee Meeting
Tonight, I get to stay local to liveblog a controversy of statewide relevance.
The first item I’ve caught introduces the issue pretty well.
Supt. Bill Rearick: The alternate budget does not provide enough funding.
Rearick: “In order for us to remain compliant with the basic education plan, there’s really only two ways to generate this kind of money”… eliminate all extracurriculars or close an elementary school.
Finance Director Doug Fiore laid out some numbers illustrating the point. Rearick says that using reserves still leaves the schools short by about $300,000 if the citizen budget (an alternate budget on the financial town referendum ballot by petition) is approved.
Committee member Deb Pallasch says that they have a $27 million budget, and eliminating reserves would force them to eliminate programs. She’s offering the audience an explanation as if this is more a presentation than a discussion to inform the members.
Now Chairwoman Sally Black is explaining some enlarged charts that she’s had made (as has been her past practice) showing the history of school funding in the town. The point appears to be that there’s never any option but the large increases in the budget every year.
Black: “No one’s gotten any raises.”
Town Council Member Dave Nelson is at the podium asking about a meeting of children in the school sports programs who were called to the auditorium and encouraged to advocate for the school budget.
The committee is debating whether the agenda applies to this item. It does.
Rearick is explaining the meeting as intended to address a matter of concern to students.
Pallasch says her child had heard that sports had all been cut, suggesting that the meeting was to resolve the “misinformation.”
The high school principal, Steven Fezette, has been giving some specifics on the meeting. In the midst of his speech, he called me out for taking his picture for this liveblog report. [Much hostile attitude in his voice and extremely unprofessional, in my humble opinion.]
Nelson says he was informed that the students were specifically told to vote a particular way, which the town charter explicitly prohibits. He says it should be investigated.
Two high school counselors are explaining that the students approached them with concerns, and they asked for the five-minute assembly to address them.
A few times, a previous incident has been mentioned in which students walked out of class in protest of something similar, and the administration wished to avoid that.
Pallasch said it was only a subset of students (sports teams), suggesting it was to address a concern, not to propagandize.
Rearick says it was to “protect or inform” our kids and their parents.
Black says she supports the financial town referendum. She alludes to the charter change that made use of public resources to advocate election results as unconstitutional.
A parent from the booster club, who was at the meeting, is saying that there was no advocacy. Students asked what they could do. She says she’s the one who told the students that they could vote (if they liked).
Another parent asks Rearick if her daughter will be able to play field hockey in the fall if the lower budget is approved.
Rearick says there are two options: 1) End extracurriculars or 2) close an elementary school.
Parent asks if the daughter’s senior year would be devastated by the cut.
[Here’s what I often wonder during these exchanges: shouldn’t a well managed school system with annual increases of several percent be able to withstand a smaller increase?]
Nancy Driggs (an advocate for the financial town referendum) is saying Nelson’s request was for the committee “to look into” the matter. She calls for an investigation, but not right now at the school committee meeting.
Committee Member Danielle Coulter makes a motion for an investigation to ask multiple people what they heard at the meeting. Grumbling from the audience.
Rearick: “Our budget has decreased from 65% of the town budget to 60%.” [I wonder whether that’s because the town budget now includes debt service for the three brand new schools that the town recently built.]
Rearick says they would have to let go teachers who received layoff notices, and students would “have nowhere to go.” Two math teachers at the high school would be gone, for example.
Committee Member Jan Bergandy is saying that the committee has never, ever used scare tactics.
Rearick: “I’m a believer that if you say something like this, then you have to act on it.”
Fiore says the problem is that an earlier budget was $200,000 under the cap. [One might suggest that caps aren’t meant to be goals, but absolute limits.]
Rearick says they “just can’t cut teachers, because the teachers are the programming.” He didn’t mention asking for additional concessions on salaries or benefits.
Pallasch says they have offerings beyond the basic education plan, but they can’t put 200 kids in the auditorium “eating bread and drinking water all day.”
Black is lauding the Budget Committee. She says she encouraged all school administrators to attend their meetings to clarify requests.
She’s going over the budget process. She says Nelson’s alternate budget had 88 signatures when 50 were required.
She says the schools’ budget came in at a 3.6% increase. “We can go up by four.”
A parent is talking; I can’t see her face, but it sounds like she’s tearing up a bit talking about her children. As with other witnesses, she’s mentioning that the requested increase is “only” $72.
[That’s $72 in savings between a 1.1% increase and the 2.something increase proposed by the Budget Committee, so it’s probably closer to a $150 increase all told. That’s on top of a few hundred last year and a few hundred the year before, and so on, such that the town’s tax levy has doubled over the last decade.]
Committee Member Carol Herrmann says the school and budget committees would have cut everything they could possibly find.
A parent asked Committee Member Coulter why she signed Nelson’s petition budget. In response, Coulter is reading a prepared statement saying that they can find the money elsewhere than the two stated options.
Specifically, she’s describing in detail costs related to a new septic system.
She says the budget requests $84,000 for busing on athletic activities. Coulter says it could be reduced without affecting offerings.
She’s also suggesting health savings accounts for employees.
“These are a couple of examples, and they do need further study.” She notes that the schools have had surpluses every year. Contracts are up for renegotiation after this school year.
“It is inappropriate to” be threatening cuts in programs. She says it is especially so when children are used as couriers of the message.
Herrmann asks Coulter whether she supports the school budget or the Nelson budget.
Coulter said the Nelson budget is townwide and is not comparable to the specific school budget.
The audience is cross examining Coulter aggressively. Now Rearick is attacking her for her comments. Absolutely no control by the chairwoman.
Pallasch tried to move the subject along. Rearick wouldn’t let her. To Coulter: “You’re going to lose a lot of good people.”
Pallasch is saying that they can’t “hope” that various things occur, including negotiation givebacks. [Current RI law, as I understand it, might suggest that a school committee could actually adjust to allocate less money to employee compensation in the budget; they aren’t required, by law, to cut programs (even those that aren’t mandatory) rather than compensation.]
Another taxpayer and teacher is saying that budget number 2 (Nelson’s budget) doesn’t save any money, just $72. Sounds like she’s tearing up. She’s offended that a school committee member would vote for a budget that reduces the schools’ increase.
She repeatedly says that Nelson’s budget cuts only affected the school, but Nelson is on the Town Council, and their increase was (I believe) about 1.1%.
Coulter is explaining that she’s observed, as a taxpayer, services disappearing in town year after year.
The audience misbehavior was finally bad enough for Supt. Rearick to request that they be respectful.
Coulter says she does care about the schools and would like to see them do well, particularly as she considers having children. An audience member laughed.
Budget Committee Member and taxpayer advocate Jeff Caron is offering an alternate review of the budget process.
Caron is saying that the Budget Committee did not make any cuts to the School Committee budget, but did cut the municipal budget.
Rearick: Recommends that they don’t spend all night talking about the other side.
Meanwhile, in the audience some teachers, including one of the counselors who spoke earlier, had cross words with a taxpayer advocate standing in the audience. “We’re just trying to figure out who you are on this list,” one said. [After the meeting, another told me that the woman was “staring them down.”]
Another audience member is cross-examining Coulter.
Pallasch asks if Rearick has considered gathering a team of people to review cuts if the alternate budget were to be passed. They listed administrators, teachers, but nobody from the other side or the public.
Town Council Member Joan Chabot is offering an “option 3”: “If you can merge classes and empty out a school, that leaves a space that is available.” She’s wondering if the town could rent the school to Little Compton as their schools are renovated.
A gentleman sitting at the end of the administrator table is cross-talking with the audience in the meantime.
Rearick thanked her for the suggestion, but noted that any rental revenue would go to the town, not the school directly.
One of the parents is back up (the booster co-president) and asked whether the schools could lose their accreditation. Rearick is explaining that changes would have to be reported, and the agency’s review “could be impacted in some way.”
The parent is saying that there have already been cuts, such as the elimination of elementary Spanish. [That makes for an interesting conversation. Private schools that charge much less than public school per-student costs are able to offer such programs.]
Black is talking about her children and what they’ve done as adults; the relevance is that they all went to Tiverton High School.
Bergandy: “This is simply war. There’s no logic to it.”
He’s saying that they could, as residents, have proposed a budget that transferred town money to the schools. He’s saying that Mr. Nelson believes he has “infinite wisdom” to know the intricacies of budgetary needs. [I wonder whether he thinks residents should have any direct say in budgets at all.]
Rearick: “Our country has always, historically, had a social contract.” “We take care of those that are infirm, old, or need medical assistance.” He says we also should take care of the students.
Herrmann thanked the members of the audience and asked them to “take the message home to your neighbors.”
“The four members of this committee” who support the schools “will do the same.” (She conspicuously left out Coulter.)
Another resident (some students’ grandmother who has been heavily involved with the town, perhaps as an employee) described her family’s involvement with the town and is offering anecdotes about the value of the town and the schools.
“For $72 per year, we just can’t throw the schools to the wolves.”
The agenda has moved on to health and wellness.
Other housekeeping-type things. Reports and announcements and such.