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.
Holmes (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.”