Mashpee School Committee Files $450,000 Petition
By: Brian Kehrl
Members of the Mashpee School Committee submitted a Town Meeting petition this week to dip into a town savings account to help to patch a $1.6 million gap in next year’s school budget.
The request for $450,000 from the town “stabilization fund,” which was filed just hours before the deadline for filing a petition on Monday afternoon, came as a shock to town officials, selectmen and Town Manager Joyce M. Mason said this week.
By working outside the standard budget process of negotiations between town and school officials, it stands to derail progress made over the past two years in improving the relationship between the two sides, they said. Both sides once again began accusing each other of lying.
Richard J. Bailey, school committee chairman, wrote in a statement to the Enterprise this week, “Given that the town has $5,000,000 in ‘rainy day’ funds and anticipates additional potential revenue from the sale of town-owned land over the next 18 months, the school committee does not believe it is responsible to absorb the staff and program reductions that will be required with a 2 percent budget reduction in [Fiscal Year] 2011. The rainy day funds are the people’s money. The petition article allows Mashpee voters to decide how deeply the school committee’s budget will be cut next year.”
“We knew it would be contentious,” he said in a follow-up interview. “When we met—we being the school committee—we sort of asked, ‘Are we really ready to do this?’ But the committee was unanimous in its determination that we are.”
Selectmen railed against the petition, both on procedural and substantive grounds, arguing that the school committee is missing the broader budget picture that involves trying to set a fair budget across every town department.
“I am disappointed that the school committee, when there is this much responsibility and this much money at risk, doesn’t understand the bigger picture. It is just absolutely frustrating,” said Selectman Michael R. Richardson, reacting to a description of the petition given by Selectmen Theresa M. Cook and Wayne E. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor, at the selectmen’s meeting Monday night and in a subsequent interview, accused Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw of misleading the school committee about budget negotiations and said school officials and the committee do not seem intimately familiar with their budget. They have not yet filed a detailed budget into the town accounting system, he said, despite statements by Ms. Bradshaw that she had done so.
He said school committee members could not explain why they settled on $450,000, versus any other amount, when the shortfall is $1.6 million. “They had no basis for why that put that number in. The only thing they kept saying was that $450,000 was going to be used to offset their budget. They couldn’t say why,” Mr. Taylor said, referring to a meeting between town and school officials on Monday afternoon.
“There are a lot of things that are just inconsistencies. And I am just concerned because I don’t think we are being treated fairly on this whole thing. It seems to me that Ms. Bradshaw is just bringing forward what she thinks should be done, and not what is good for the town as a whole,” he said.
Ms. Bradshaw declined to comment on the petition, writing in an e-mail that, “The petition article is a political discussion in which I do not have a part. It is the school committee’s role to approve a budget that provides the best education possible for Mashpee’s children.”
Weighing on comments made by several town officials was the decision school committee’s decision earlier this year to give mid-year raises to several administrative employees.
“We have been trying to hold the line. We went into arbitration with police and fire,” Mr. Taylor said. “I don’t know about your world, but I am not getting any raises in my world. I am lucky to keep my job.”
Ms. Cook said she was frustrated by the use of a petition to budget, which she said is an end-run around the negotiation process, and that the school committee filed the petition without letting town officials know they were doing so, just hours before the deadline.
“We didn’t even get a heads-up or anything,” she said in an interview this week. “I was totally taken aback by a petition article, signed by all four school committee members and spouses and neighbors of them. For it to be presented like that, I felt like I was being held hostage. Like if you give us $450,000 more, we will pull the article.”
Ms. Mason said she felt it was difficult to gauge the validity of the school committee’s claims to need more money because the school department has not yet submitted detailed budget figures.
She said every other department, from police and fire to the library, has worked to make do with the difficult situation.
Ms. Mason said this week that she has finalized a budget to be presented to selectmen and the Mashpee Finance Committee in the coming weeks. The budget, generally a two percent reduction from this year, avoids major layoffs, she said.
For the school department, however, meeting the same two percent reduction being required of other departments would mean cutting $1.6 million from the budget and significant layoffs, Mr. Bailey said. He did not provide specific numbers on layoffs, but said there is little fat to trim elsewhere in the personnel-driven budget. The number of layoffs could be extrapolated by taking the amount the school needs to cut and dividing by $50,000, he said.
“$450,000 felt right to us to offset some of what we are facing, but recognizing also that we have, I would say, about $600,000 in cuts that we know we have to make,” he said.
He argued that it is the third consecutive year of cutbacks for the schools, of budgets that do not meet the growth in inflation and contracted salary increases.
He said the committee chose to target the stabilization account, one of two main reserve accounts held by the town, now valued at about $3.2 million, because it is a simpler process than seeking a Proposition 2 1/2 override. “This seemed better, as a tactic, than going through an override,” he said.
“We talked about it and decided that this was a way of getting the town to recognize how the school is struggling to meet this budget. And the cash is there, and it would put it in front of voters at Town Meeting. So it seemed like a fair process and one that made sense to us,” he said.
He said he is hopeful that negotiations between the town and the schools will continue and that an agreement can be reached in which the petition is pulled.
He acknowledged the reduction in enrollment at the schools—in which the total number of students has dropped from about 2,200 to about 1,850 in recent years—but he said the decline is difficult to use as justification to cut teachers from any particular grade because it is spread across grades and schools. It amounts to the loss of a few children a year from each grade.
The decline has also slowed down in the past year or two, he said.
Mr. Bailey said he made an accusation about town officials not providing honest figures at the meeting on Monday, a statement he said he later regretted. “I want to avoid that language. I think every department is facing similar struggles,” he said.
Ms. Mason, though, said the negotiations have slowly been deteriorating in recent weeks, and the meeting on Monday seemed to destroy the goodwill that had been developed in the last 18 months. “The whole meeting was very uncomfortable and very unproductive,” she said.
“It is almost as if we have taken three steps back from where we were a year ago,” Ms. Mason said. “The unfortunate part is they have drawn a line in the sand.”
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