By Jane Mills, The Middletown Press
MIDDLETOWN >> Next year’s school budget dominated discussions at the education board meeting Tuesday night as board members and parents expressed frustration over the prospect of more belt-tightening after several years of economic recession and incremental budget increases.
School district Superintendent Patricia Charles proposed increasing spending by 5.9 percent in the 2015-2016 school year but also submitted a list of cost-saving measures that could cut that increase in half, to around 3 percent. The latter scenario involved cutting teaching staff by six teachers, along with trimming music and art activities, among other reductions.
“I look at this list and it goes from bad to worse,” said school board Member Cheryl McClellan, referring to the list of reductions. “We can’t do this.”
But budget subcommittee chairman and school board member Edward McKeon expressed fatigue at being party to cuts he didn’t agree with each year and proposed the board accept Charles proposed budget and dare the mayor and the Common Council to cut it. He lambasted Gov. Malloy for failing to offer more support to the state’s public schools and working people.
“We have a governor who will not tax the richest people in the state. We have a governor who supports charter schools. We elected the wrong guy,” he said, to applause from parents and district staff attending the meeting.
“I am not disagreeing with you,” Nocera said, explaining the difficult economic financial picture the district faces.
Moody Elementary School parent Meg Susi said cutting the proposed increases to 3-pecent would have a catastrophic impact and urged the board to recommend a greater increase.
Charles said that in the past few years she and her staff have been “as creative as possible,” in finding ways to save money and there were no more clever ways to find more savings.
McKeon urged the public to contact their elected representatives to support school funding and emphasized that politicians do respond to constituent calls
Bob Santy, president of Connecticut Economic Resource Center Inc. a nonprofit, quasi-public economic development center in Rocky Hill, said, the economy was beginning to look up.
“There is a growing consensus among economists that 2015 is going to be a growth year,” he said, with growth projections in the 3-percent range for Connecticut. Estimated 3rd-quarter 2014 growth nationally was 3.9 percent, he said.
But the school board also has to keep an eye on the state legislature, currently in session, Santi said, pointing out that it is unknown if Malloy will renew his promise to protect funding to cities and towns as he did in his first term. Middletown schools received roughly $14 million in state funds and grants this fiscal year.
Board member Linda Szynkowicz, who also services on the board’s budget subcommittee, would like to dig further into the line-by-line district spending she and fellow board members have been poring over for months.
She told fellow budget committee members at Monday’s budget committee meeting that continued difficulty receiving responses to requests for more information finally prompted her to file an appeal on Jan. 2 to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission to address incomplete records. The FOI Commission enforces the Freedom of Information Act, which mandates public access to public records.
Szynkowicz said she would like the public to be able to access vendor contracts, payments and information about bidding more readily and transparently.
The superintendent’s office produced some of the documents she requested in writing in August, prompting Szynkowicz to write another letter requesting additional records, she said.
Charles told budget committee members on Monday evening that the district had produced numerous records and that staff had offered to sit with Szynkowicz to view more of them in the district office. Szynkowicz said inspecting them herself was not enough to provide wide access to the public.
Szynkowicz also told budget committee members Monday evening that she was intimidated by two people she did not name, but confirmed were not on the Board of Education, who told her to stop asking questions about the district’s finances.
Exacerbating the difficulty accessing some records may be the financial software the district uses that is over 20 years old. New software is being installed this year and is the same as that used in City Hall, allowing the two finance offices to access records in the same way. The city agreed to pay for the$122,000 upgrade.
“We hope to get this done, painlessly, by July said Mohammed Fotouhi, vice president of Admins Inc., a software company based in Cambridge, Mass. The Software is called Admins Unified Community.
Board members will continue to debate the issue before recommending a final spending package to the Common Council and the mayor, for adoption in April.