McKee, school board find tentative common ground
McKee, school board find tentative common ground
CUMBERLAND - School Committee Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu called Mayor Daniel McKee "juvenile" at last week's school board meeting.
But only after McKee reminded her for the eighth time that she and her committee had dropped the ball a year ago on his offer to discuss a school funding referendum for this year's ballot.
Still, all-in-all, the mayor's hour-long appearance before the School Committee last Thursday did push the conversation reset button for two sides that struggle regularly over the town's spending priorities.
McKee had come to the School Committee meeting to answer Jeff Mutter's inquiry about whether the town was complying with the state Basic Education Plan funding statute, a question that Mutter, vice chairman of the School Committee, had posed to Finance Director Brian Silvia on March 12.
Interpreting that statute - Chapter 16-7.2-3 - has dominated recent School Committee meetings and prompted a last-minute $4.34 million increase to the school board budget request that was already seeking $1.5 million more from local taxpayers. If approved - and no one seemed to think it would be - the average tax bill would have increased by some 10 percent, McKee has said.
Last Thursday's back and forth ended without a solid answer for Mutter, but did lead to:
* Beaulieu and McKee agreeing to put aside admitted personal conflicts to begin exploring options together. They later set up a Tuesday, April 15 appointment.
* McKee assuring all that his recommended funding for schools this year will not exceed the state's 4 percent cap on levy increases.
He said several state officials are telling him that even balloting by town residents couldn't dislodge the state's clamp on tax increases.
* Supt. Philip Thornton making a quick pitch for must-have programs and supplies including a middle school band instructor and media center coordinators and textbooks. Books are so scarce in some classes, he said, that students can't take one home or so old that the latest news was the falling of the Berlin Wall.
* Beaulieu agreeing that a so-called performance audit might be a way to review and document the financial strains on the system and whether efficiencies might be found.
* McKee saying that state funding, while improved, still lags behind the support communities in nearby states get from their state government. His comments included a call for stepping up state support, now heading to the 40 percent range, to closer to the 50 percent level.
Three conflicting state statutes are in play as school board members confront their funding dilemma again this year:
1. The so-called Senate Bill 3050 passed in 2006 that prohibits communities from raising the tax levy - the amount billed to local residents - by more than 4 percent a year.
2. The BEP statute Chapter 16-7.2-3 that mandates communities fully fund basic education and pins the total state and local amount at about $9,000 per student, not counting items like lunches, transportation and utilities.
3. The funding statute prohibition that limits a school board to requesting no more than 104 percent of last year's budget.
McKee did suggest that although schools can't request more than 104 percent, the town can provide more if cuts were made in municipal spending.
School board member Linda Teel wanted to know why the tax cap, S-3050, always wins.
She suggested being "brave" and complying with the BEP statute instead of the tax cap, noting the kids' education ought to "trump" adherence to the state tax cap.
"I just find it interesting that everyone is so willing to comply with one set of regulations but no one is willing to think about the best interest of students. They're all general laws. Why is the only discussion we can have is the one that says 'No we can't do it.'"
But it was the McKee-Beaulieu exchange that the night will be remembered for.
"I don't want to start off on a bad tone," she began, "but I have to say it. It's been eight times you said my door's open, that I'm this, that I'm that.
"My door's open, too," she went on. "You have my cell number, I have your cell number."
She suggested that they both were obligated to move ahead with conversation about funding schools.
"That conversation doesn't sit squarely on my shoulders, it sits squarely on our shoulders," she said.
"I don't think we can use that excuse anymore that 'Gee you didn't call me.'"
McKee ran down a list of efforts on behalf of the schools while Beaulieu reminded him of the financial strain his Blackstone Valley Prep charter school causes the Cumberland district.
But she conceded, "I appreciate that you're here. It shows you're willing to work with us and I respect that.
"I'm ready to do this. And the committee is ready to have this conversation," she said.
Mutter, whose BEP question triggered McKee's appearance, played peacemaker, reminding the mayor of past efforts when he was on the Town Council. "There is always an answer and there is always a way," he suggested.
Agreed Beaulieu, "We are on a journey for students and we want our students to be enormously successful. And when we hand a diploma to a kid, we want it to have meaning.
"I know it hasn't been easy for you and me," she told McKee, "and I don't know why. Maybe we're both very headstrong. And maybe we're very deliberate, you and me, and that's not a bad thing."
Overall, McKee was striking a supportive stance throughout the conversation, but those listening carefully heard his repeated funding caveat. He supports more dollars to schools, he said, if it means more classroom time for the students.
Asked later about that seeming contract-busting concept, McKee said he'd like to explore the idea of exchanging a longer teaching day with giving teachers Social Security coverage in addition to their retirement pensions. (See related story at right.)