Aldermen Take Aim At Schools Budget

Melissa Bailey Photos

Three million extra dollars for the schools: Too much for taxpayers to bear? Or a much-needed increase to save school reform?

That dilemma emerged this week as two East Rock aldermen—Jessica Holmes and Justin Elicker—moved to deny the mayor’s request to increase the city contribution to the schools budget by $3 million.

The proposal—which would eliminate the $3 million increase entirely—is among a bevy of budget amendments set to be discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the aldermanic Finance Committee. The aldermen made the proposal Monday, prompting alarm at the Board of Education.

Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo said he is “very concerned” about the proposal. Eliminating the budget increase would be “a step back for school reform,” he warned.

Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark said through years of flat-funding, the city has failed to support the much-touted teachers contract aldermen approved in 2009, which cost an extra $3 million per year. He said the schools have already made significant cuts to balance the budget. “I don’t think this bodes well for the future of education.”

In a conversation Wednesday, Elicker took issue with Clark’s characterization. Increasing the schools budget by $3 million would lock the city into years of funding at that level, at a time when taxpayers already face a 8 to 10 percent tax hike, he argued.

“Everyone in the city is facing difficult times,” Elicker said. He urged the school board to find more places to save money.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoHolmes (pictured) declined to comment.

The proposal sparked a vigorous discussion at Monday’s school board meeting, where Clark gave the board a budget update.

Clark requested a $3 million increase in the “city contribution,” city taxpayer dollars that go to the school board, bringing that total to $24.6 million.

The city contribution, combined with state grants for education, make up a $178 million “general fund” allocation for the 2012-13 school system budget, about a third of the city budget. The school system is asking the city to increase that to $184 million through two sources: $3 million in city taxpayer money, and another $3.2 million in new state money for “alliance districts.” That $3.2 million comes with strings attached: 80 percent must be spent on new reform efforts approved by the state, Clark said; it can’t be used to supplant other money.

The $184 million is the figure that aldermen focus on when they’re dealing with the budget. Aldermen can’t control how the schools spend their money; they can vote to increase or decrease that $184 million. The overall schools budget Clark proposed, which includes outside grants, totals $396.1 million, a decrease over the prior year.

Clark said even with the extra $3 million he’s requesting from the city, the school district would have to make $9.4 million in cuts, including eliminating 55 teaching positions, 10 paraprofessional jobs, five clerical/security jobs, and six administrative positions. Clark said the district would plan to make those cuts through attrition, not through layoffs.

Mayor John DeStefano (pictured), who appoints the school board and sits on it, supported the $3 million request in the budget he sent to aldermen.

Clark on Monday expressed frustration that aldermen, who have the final say in the city budget, are moving to make cuts.

Clark said the school system’s new budget, which gives school-by-school breakdowns of everything from salaries to textbooks, aims to be as transparent as possible.

“One frustrating thing,” he said, is that when he presented the 500-page document to aldermen at a recent budget workshop, aldermen appeared “to not have any familiarity with it.” Instead, they “asked Dr. Mayo and I to justify the numbers.”

He characterized aldermen’s attitude this way: “it doesn’t matter what you say, we’re not giving you any other money.”

That’s troubling, argued Clark, when the schools have had “no extra money from the city in five years.”

That claim is not true, Elicker later noted: The city did increase its contribution to the school board by $1.2 million last year (the first increase since the 2008-09 school year).

DeStefano noted that the city has increased payments in debt service and medical benefits for public schools employees over the years, as well—payments that aren’t included in the “city contribution” figure.

Clark criticized the aldermen for approving a landmark teachers contract in 2009 that included $3 million in annual raises for teachers—or $12 million extra over four years, he said—without sending the schools money to pay for it.

Clark said the school system has made arduous efforts to find savings, including outsourcing a third of the custodial workforce, saving an estimated $4 million per year.

“What do we get for managing the budget? Less money,” fumed Clark.

“We’re at a loss for how they can’t see” how much work the school system has done to rein in costs.

When the schools took advantage of attrition among teachers aides to find some savings last year, Clark noted, “we heard blowback” from parents outraged about losing classroom supports.

“There’s an assumption that things will just keep going” if aldermen flat-fund the school board, Clark argued. But he said that’s not the case.

If aldermen don’t approve the $3 million increase, Clark said, schools might be forced to lose extended-day programs and wraparound services providing kids social and emotional supports. Gifted and talented programs and summer school risk closure, too, he said.

Superintendent Mayo urged the school board to “call some of our friends that are alders” and urge them to fight for the $3 milion.

Board member Alex Johnston noted the school board could work to have better relationships with aldermen. He credited East Shore Alderman Sal DeCola for showing up to Monday’s board meeting, as well as other meetings in the past couple of months. (Aldermen rarely do.)

Florence Caldwell (at left in photo, with Hazel Pappas), a grandparent active in the city schools, suggested the school board involve aldermen in the early stages of preparing the budget to get them on board. She said she might not react well “to have a five-hundred page document thrown at me” after the fact.

Elicker later downplayed the sense of alarm expressed by school officials.

When he and then-Alderman Roland Lemar suggested flat-funding the schools four years ago, he noted, the school board rallied parents to City Hall to defend the budget. “They said the sky would fall.”

“The sky didn’t fall,” Elicker said.

He said departments across the city are facing difficult financial times. Government needs to “be more efficient,” he said.

Asked where he would find $3 million dollars to cut from the proposed school budget, he gave one example: The schools spend $30 million on outside contracts, including hiring contractors for professional development that he said could be done in-house.

Elicker declined to provide a list of cuts totaling $3 million. He noted that aldermen don’t have line-item control of the schools budget. And he said they shouldn’t be making those calls: “our job is not to meddle too much. Department heads are the best-prepared” to determine where to make cuts.

Holmes, co-sponsor of the budget amendment, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story Tuesday and Wednesday. She instead issued an email to constituents Wednesday addressing the issue. In the email, she dismissed the argument that losing $3 million would “stall” school reform. She said she is committed to finding savings.

“I believe that improving New Haven’s schools should be a top priority for the city,” she wrote, “but I do not have confidence that this additional money is the answer.”

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posted by: anonymous on May 16, 2013  3:41pm

If the city were more walkable and pedestrians weren’t being mowed down on a regular occasion, then there would be plenty of tax revenue left over for our schools.  The value of land, number of jobs, and retail sales increase exponentially when you increase walkability and improve transportation.

Sadly, most of the Alders (notably, other than Elicker and Holmes, and a couple others) voted down potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in free Federal and State money to improve our transit and bus system last year. 

It seems like only a few of our Alders understand the relationship of economic development, taxes, and schools - can we get rid of the 20 or so who don’t?

posted by: Noteworthy on May 16, 2013  4:02pm

My notes:

1. Thank you Justin Elicker and Jessica Holmes. More money does not mean more reform or better education. It just means more money is being spent.

2. This $3 million is a bailout for poor decisions that have littered the school yard for the past dozen years. From building more schools than we need or can afford; to building much larger schools that house no more children than the older, smaller school; to the excessive use of outside contractors and consultants and an unknown amount of “special assignments.”

3. The city is operating in a deficit and the three largest budgets in the city are all demanding more - more overtime for police and fire; more employees in police and fire; education wants $3 million. Pensions are underfunded; the legal defense/settlement fund is $20 million in the hole and debt service will take more than 13% of the total budget - some $67 million to pay for what is closing in on a BILLION worth of debt.
4. The teachers contract is between the NH BOE and the union. The BOA was just handed what the BOE negotiated. The aldermen had nothing to do with it. The contract bought off the teachers support for reform with 3% raises and a minimal impact to healthcare. Clark repeated this contract idea - buying union support for reform with more money when he negotiated the principal’s next contract. At time BOA President Carl Goldfield correctly noted taxpayers are being forced to pay principals extra money for something they should already be doing. Like the teachers’ contract, the aldermen were forced to endorse what the BOE had negotiated.

5. Taxpayers have continually paid for increases in healthcare and debt service at the BOE; has not turned down one new school and signed up for a complete make-over at Hillhouse. Managing your budget for efficiencies does not mean your reward is more money. Sometimes, there just isn’t any left. Taxpayers are going broke as they’re caught between the state/city.

posted by: JohnTulin on May 16, 2013  5:09pm

Here is the real test for Kerm:  will he join Elicker and shoot down more spending in the schools.  The schools DO NOT need this money, they need to trim the fat and waste, and any principal knows this better than anyone.  If he says otherwise, everyone who lives in and works for this city will see how disingenuous he is being.  Signs of whats to come?

posted by: Brutus2011 on May 16, 2013  5:51pm

Here is how to save 3 mil. off the top of my head:

I. COO Clark resigns and the position is deleted
      Savings- 150K incl bennies

II. New Superintendent’s salary is 150K
      Savings- 75-100K incl bennies

III. Reduce 15 district admin positions
      Savings- 2.25 mil incl bennies

IV.  Reduce 10 Asst Prin positions
      Savings- 1.10 mil incl bennies

V.  Eliminate support staff for the reduction
    administrative fat—-
      Total savings—should be about right

And guess what, the faux reform will not be hindered one iota. Why?

Because it is all smoke and mirrors anyway.

Thank you, Aldermen/women for standing up for us.

I still think the Federal Prosecutor should be investigating the mayor , the BOE, NHPS and Dr. Mayo for abuse of power and fiscal irregularities before they leave office.

posted by: Razzie on May 16, 2013  5:59pm

One question everyone is asking ... “Who is running Hillhouse?” The answer to that question tells us all we need to know about the BOE’s true commitment to school change.

posted by: Anders on May 16, 2013  6:02pm

What New Haven really needs is a Rahm Emmanuel to close down all the small and under used schools. Move all the students and teachers into Hillhouse which is woefully under utilized.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on May 16, 2013  8:00pm

“DeStefano noted that the city has increased payments in debt service and medical benefits for public schools employees over the years, as well—payments that aren’t included in the ‘city contribution’ figure.” Here’s the dirty little secret: if you DO include that debt service and medical benefits, our city’s education system takes up a walloping two-thirds of our budget! Real “education reform” means phasing out this unsustainable system with a radical new approach. One piece of this genuine “reform” that needs a serious look is the use of school vouchers.

posted by: RCguy on May 17, 2013  2:29am

Thank you, Brutus2011
I love your 5 point breakdown!

It’s essential to cut the administrative positions first and foremost.

posted by: westville man on May 17, 2013  9:05am

Actually JohnTulin,  that IS one of Kermit’s cost-cutting initiatives.  He believes there are too many administrators in the schools and you will find his proposals on this refreshing.
It will become public soon as he outs out his platform.

posted by: JohnTulin on May 17, 2013  1:19pm

That’s great to hear, Westville Man.  It will be even better when I hear it from Kerm.  The best, when he actually does it!

posted by: Blue on May 20, 2013  11:50am

Glad I got out of NH.  Too much money going to fat cats, too little support for teachers in tough schools, and too much bragging by the NHFT, which will say nearly anything to keep afloat.

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on May 20, 2013  11:52am

The school system employs too many people who either a) are 65+ and need to retire so that younger and cheaper employees can be hired and b) double-dip, drawing both a salary AND a pension from the city. We need to get rid of the people who are getting paid twice, as they are a huge drain on the budget.

I’m not saying that any of these people don’t do their jobs. I’m just speaking from a strictly financial standpoint. There should be a salary cap for administrators and for Dr. Mayo. And I shouldn’t have to worry about not being able to afford my property taxes, when administrators regularly earn $110,000+ and Dr. Mayo’s package is worth $276,000.