School board rehires essential teachers that it can't afford

School board rehires essential teachers that it can't afford

By GERRY GOLDSTEIN

Valley Breeze & Observer Correspondent

gerryg76@verizon.net

SMITHFIELD - Uncertain how to budget for the recall of 15 teachers it laid off - but asserting that schools can't operate effectively without them - the School Committee on Monday re-hired them all.

Pointing a collective finger at the Town Council for embargoing a $450,000 increase in the school budget, the committee worried about how to make up that deficit. Nevertheless, it rescinded all the layoffs. Members said re-hiring the teachers now will save some $72,000 in unemployment benefit expenses, and that later in the summer the teachers would have to be recalled anyway because they are essential.

But by then, they said, many of the teachers would have taken jobs elsewhere and the candidate pool for replacing them would be depleted.

The committee left for later consideration decisions on how to balance its budget, not knowing whether the Town Council will ever free up the budget increase taxpayers approved at the June 13 Financial Town Meeting.

But school board Chairman Richard Iannitelli noted ruefully, "We are kicking this can down the road and we'll have to pick it up before school starts."

Supt. Robert O'Brien said that for now, the School Department must assume it has only a level-funded budget to work with and that he's anticipating a shortfall for the coming year, including potential loss of the $450,000, of $582,717.

And, he said, that's after using all of the department's cumulative surplus of $1.3 million.

He said that to help make up for the shortfall he's contemplating a 3 percent cut in all non-personnel areas, including allocations for special education, sports, professional development, fuel, and electricity. That would save a total of $132,717, he told the committee.

Iannitelli said the board might also ask the Town Council for permission to use $200,000 from school capital budget, money usually reserved for long-term projects and repairs.

As for spending of all available surplus money, he said, "If we go into a year without a single penny, that would be a little scary."

Some of the surplus money is earmarked for unexpected expenses, such as the registration of additional special education students.

Intending to learn whether the School Committee spends its money wisely, the Town Council has ordered an outside performance audit of its practices, and has linked the decision on whether to release all or part of the $450,000 to the study's findings.

Additionally, the council has reserved the right to direct how the escrowed money is spent, a move that at Monday's meeting Iannitelli said is illegal because it allegedly impinges on school board prerogatives.

He said he expects the audit to take at least four months, meaning that the committee's budget issues will not be resolved by the time school starts in late August.

In calling back all the teachers, the committee chose among three alternative plans offered by O'Brien. The other two would have variously sacrificed teachers in special education, world languages, and family consumer science, the last considered key to offering enough electives at the high school.

A part-time middle school world languages teacher is considered necessary to maintaining the language program there, which is a feeder for advanced language instruction at the high school.

Committee member Brenden Oates said the current troubles are "a long-term effect of level-funded budgets from the Town Council" that have produced cuts in course availability to the point where "It's embarrassing what we can offer."

He noted that the School Department has already operated on level-funded budgets for three consecutive years. The current local appropriation is $27.26 million.

Member Sean Clough asked if cuts could be made in non-teaching positions, such as teacher aides and custodians, but O'Brien said that has already been done in previous years, and "We have no place else to go."

The school board had originally asked for a $1.1-million budget increase for the coming year.

Asserting that the current uncertainty will complicate scheduling fall classes at the high school and middle school, member Virginia Harnois declared, "What are we doing here? The people getting hurt are the students."

The laid-off teachers who were called back Monday work in pre-kindergarten, 1st grade, special education, speech pathology, school psychology, family consumer science, art, social work, and math.

All the layoffs made in a given year are not meant to stick. But because a teacher cannot be laid off for a coming year unless notified of the job loss by the previous March 1, it's common practice to send many layoff notices, to retain flexibility on which ones will actually be carried through as budget pictures become clear.

The School Committee has said that because of the escrowed $450,000, there is no clear budget picture for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The committee had originally laid off 17 teachers, but two have since left the system, according to Iannitelli.

In another matter Monday, the committee heard from an outside attorney familiar with Internal Revenue Service regulations that she sees no income tax issues with a new supplemental benefits plan for administrators the board approved.

Similar to a previous plan but with the addition of a health reimbursement option that contributes to such items as co-pays and deductibles, the package allows administrators to put a tax-sheltered $2,500 annually toward one of several choices, which also include tuition reimbursement for education above the master's degree level, professional development, or a 403(b) annuity.

Taxpayer Albert Costantino had cautioned the committee against any plan that might violate federal tax codes.

The lawyer, Lori Basilico of Edwards Wildman Palmer LLC, said that while IRS determinations can be subjective, she sees no problem with the plan.