School department layoffs discussed

WESTFIELD – More than 100 teachers and school staff members packed the City Council Chamber last night for the Finance Committee’s review of the district’s $54,430,442 fiscal year 2013 budget.
School Superintendent Suzanne Scallion said the district administration is still coping with an $860,000 budget gap created by the loss of $2.2 million in federal funding and a projected increase of $600,000 in special education line items next year.
Scallion said the administration is taking steps to bring the budget in line with Mayor Daniel M. Knapik’s target, but that process has been painful because it required a reduction in staff.
Scallion said that “non-renewal notifications” have been sent to 20 teachers this week and 10 paraprofessionals will be sent layoff notices next week.
“We sent out the non-renewal notices to balance the budget,” Scallion said. “The notices were only sent to teachers this week, paraprofessional notices will go out next week. This is the least favorite part of our work.”
“Six thousand students are on the receiving end of the decision before you,” she said to the three-member City Council Finance Committee. Four other City Council members also attended the budget review session.
The district is also expanding its retirement incentive, $10,000 over three years, to include teachers in Unit B and custodians.
The School Committee voted on June 11 to approve a $10,000 retirement incentive for Unit A, the teachers, to be paid over a three-year period as part of the school administration’s effort to close the budget gap. The $10,000 incentive approximately covers the salary and step increases the staff members would have earned over that three-year period.
The incentive creates a delta of about $23,000 between the highest paid staff members ($70,000) accepting retirement and staff ($40,000) replacing some of those retiring staff members.
Scallion, in response to a question from At-large Councilor Brian Sullivan, said the district is expanding the number of school choice students to generate revenue. The district receives $5,000 per school choice student.
The administration is allocating $1.1 million from the school choice account to balance the district budget.
“We don’t want to count on school choice to balance the budget,” Scallion said. “We’re a level 3 district.  We could use that money for other programs.”
Scallion and At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty, a member of the Finance Committee engaged in an exchange, joined by several staff members.
“The School Department is getting a $3 million increase. More than all of the other department combined,” Flaherty said. “So those departments are taking a hit, giving up something so the School Department can get $54,430,442.”
Scallion responded that “there is no more important investment that the city can make at this time, the future of our kids.”
“We only have so much money,” Flaherty said. “The school (budget) is going up by 5.79 percent and everybody else is taking a hit.
Scallion asked if any other municipal department is laying off employees, noting that the School Department is reducing its workforce through attrition, instituting the retirement incentive “handshake” for Unit a. Unit B and custodians, as well as laying off 30 staff members.
Flaherty said the city cannot sustain 5 percent increases in the department’s budget for an extended number of years.
“You may need an override for $2 million,” he said.  “Put it to the voters so we don’t have to shut off other departments, squeeze out other programs, such as paving and road repair.”
Scallion responded that this year’s increase is atypical because of the need to cover the $2.2 million loss of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, a substantial reduction in Title 1 and the $600,000 increase in special education out-of-district tuition and transportation.
“We won’t have that big $2.2 million hit again,” she said.
Scallion said that the district now has 200 students with autism, “yet Title 1 funding is declining.”
The administration is evaluating establishing an in-house autism program to reduce the out-of-district tuition and transportation. Not only would the in-house program result in cost avoidance, it could also generate revenue as other area districts send their students to Westfield, thereby reducing their transportation costs. Currently there are two autism programs, both in Connecticut, requiring a 90 minute compute.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard E. Onofrey Jr., said the City Council is very limited in its oversight of the school budget under state law. The council can cut the district’s budget bottom line, but only the School Committee has the authority to decide how that budget will be allocated.
“We approve a number, then it’s up to the School Committee,” Onofrey said. “Under state law we don’t have any say in how the budget is allocated.”
Onofrey said that any council member can make a motion to cut the budget, but that the motion has to gain the support of seven councilors, a majority of the 13-member board, to be approved.
Onofrey said the Finance Committee will continue its budget review, department by department, until the last week of June.
The three-member Finance Committee will meet on Monday, June 25, to identify recommended cuts to the budget as submitted by Mayor Daniel M. Knapik. The committee does not have authority, except in emergency situations, to increase line items, only to cut.
The entire City Council, meeting as a committee of the whole, will convene on Tuesday, June 26, to review the entire budget and act on the recommendations of the Finance Committee. Individual members can also make motions to reduce funding.
The City Council will conduct a special meeting on Wednesday, June 27, to approve the budget as amended.

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