Officials closing Cumberland’s budget gap

Officials closing Cumberland’s budget gap

Ashton School teacher Nick Oliveira, at the podium during a budget hearing at McCourt Middle School on Monday, asks those in the room who are impacted by proposed budget cuts to stand up behind him.

CUMBERLAND – If school leaders’ goal in sending layoff notices to entire departments was to inspire impassioned crowds at budget hearings over the past week, they certainly succeeded, say town officials.

But in the end, said Mayor Jeff Mutter leading up to an expected initial budget vote Wednesday evening, June 5, there appeared to be enough moves available to avoid most or all staffing cuts previously suggested as a possibility.

“Obviously we’re not so sure that particular action needed to be performed in the fashion that it was,” he told The Valley Breeze of the layoff notices sent to some 100 or more employees.

School leaders met again Tuesday afternoon on a series of potential moves to fill a suggested $1.6 million budget hole they said was brought about by a lack of a 4 percent town funding increase to schools.

School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica confirmed that some budget changes were made Tuesday as the mayor and school officials “identified areas where we find additional funding.” The schools are hoping to use more fund balance savings, which all in the room agreed shouldn’t be used for day-to-day expenses, he said. Also Tuesday, there was talk with special education staff about bringing more students back from outside placement, and those savings would be used to keep employees.

“There still would be cuts, but not as deep,” he said.

The Town Council on Monday postponed a first vote on Mutter’s $102 million budget plan ($70.7 million of that to schools) following another four hours of testimony, including dozens of teachers, students and parents, about why key positions, particularly in guidance, language, arts, sports and music, should be maintained. Council members were unsure whether they’d have enough time to resolve all issues that evening. The budget will need to be passed twice to become official.

Mutter told The Breeze Tuesday that there appeared to be enough available moves to nearly make up the entire $1.6 million, including the schools using a portion of what’s expected to be a fairly significant amount of unspent money in the 2018-2019 budget.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu, a former school board member, leveled a series of questions at Supt. Bob Mitchell on Monday about why entire departments, such as language and music, received layoff notices. She said the types of personnel who received the pink slips, including longtime counselors and librarians, “absolutely had a dramatic impact on what kids” went home and told their parents.

Mitchell responded that a “time crunch” played a role in layoff notices this year, saying school officials acted on legal advice. Beaulieu suggested that she was struggling to buy the explanation, saying she’s not sure how the approach taken helps with collaboration between the town and schools.

Among the budget fixes Mutter was looking to have the school board and council discuss further were:

• Counting a housing aid bonus, at around $230,000.

• Counting an expected reimbursement from the state of $125,000 in 2019-2020 for the renovations to the pool at Cumberland High School, an amount school officials have not accounted for in their budget.

• Increasing the town’s estimated collection on its tax levy by 17 one hundredths of a point, for an extra $110,000 or so.

• Using $146,000 in money long budgeted for literacy programs, but never spent, for unexpected costs such as health care overages.

• Counting savings from some retirements school officials know are happening, but are not budgeting, at an estimated $200,000.

• Counting likely savings on a new net metering agreement with the town, at $66,000.

• And using what’s expected to be a substantial surplus this year. The schools are better positioned than the town to reassign some fund balances to offset budgeted line items, he said.

Add all these things together, Mutter said Monday, and you “get precariously close to the number” needed.

The mayor reiterated that while this year’s budget process has been concerning, he’s never described it as a crisis. He said with all the options available, officials should be able to “patch it together pretty well” without modifying his plan to reduce reliance on spending from town savings.

Mutter countered comments about level funding to the schools by noting that the budget bumps up money for education by $1.5 million, including increased state aid and the town’s agreement to cover master lease costs.

Town Council Finance Chairman Bob Shaw said there were few line item cuts suggested during a meeting last Thursday, May 30. Most suggestions are really one-time fixes that don’t have a guaranteed revenue stream over the coming years. He and Beaulieu agreed with Mutter’s assertion that the town needs long-term conversations and a multi-year plan to fix its yearly problems with school funding.

Mitchell said Mutter did a good job summarizing the tight situation the town and schools continue to find themselves in. Even with a maximum tax increase, there’s not a lot of money left, he said. Leaders must be “incredibly creative problem solvers,’ he said, and he was impressed with the good ideas put on the table.

Eliminating positions in world language, sports, mental health and others would only hurt students and the adults who guide them, he said.

Mitchell did previously tell The Breeze that he expected most employees receiving layoff notices to be called back.

Nick Oliveira, a Lincoln resident and teacher at Ashton School, was one of many people to speak over many hours of testimony in the past week to urge the council to fund the positions needed. He disagreed with suggestions that Cumberland doesn’t know what it wants to be by saying it’s clear to him that this town is all about its core values of family and community, full of people who are proud of where they live and support residents in need.

He spoke of the help he got with his own brother in raising funds to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis, and how his niece, also with cystic fibrosis, will now depend on the community’s schools and support system. What message does it send, Oliveira said, to tell schools that what they have is good enough after so many people have worked hard to get it to one of the best in the state.

Oliveira and others spoke against slashing the mental health professionals on the front lines of addressing increasingly complex student needs. Making someone like Ashton guidance counselor Patty Lambrou a part-time employee only hurts students, he said. Will students simply be told not to have a mental health crisis on Tuesdays?

“These cuts are unacceptable and would be truly detrimental to the future of our town,” Oliveira told the council.

Lambrou, a longtime Cumberland resident, expressed her profound disappointment that the town still hasn’t gotten its act together in funding its schools. She and her colleagues should not have to face the prospects of losing their jobs each year, she said.

Monday’s budget hearing also featured a lengthy presentation by Liz Lemire and the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Learning (OCYL) on the importance of that organization, particularly for early childhood programs. Lemire cited a “significant value” of the program, describing the terrible impact it would have if the town cut funds to it, as some have suggested.

Beaulieu said Monday that this year’s budget cycle has fallen far short of the past, particularly when it comes to commentary from school officials about Mutter.

DiModica responded that frustrations came about because school leaders believed they would get advance warning about the idea for level funding, but didn’t. Mutter disputed that claim, saying there were numerous discussions about planning for the worst.

Comments

I am so sick of all this. Let the school department suck it up and manage its money correctly. The "scare" tactics that they use are ridiculous. The kids are coming home telling parents that teachers and leaders at school are telling them that all sports and music and everything else will be taken away. This is just to get everyone all upset and to come make dramatic presentations to the council. They have been doing this for years to get their own way and it has got to stop. Mr. Mutter just say NO to the school department's begging. Let them be responsible and manage their budget to pay bills instead of hoarding surplus funds and spending money on foolish stuff that could go to the kids. Maybe the administrators don't need all the raises they get. Let them contribute to the schools' well being as the School Committee can't seem to do it. We need a new school committee while we are at it. They don't need more money to waste. They need a course in math.

While I do not have a dog in this particular fight (not a resident of Cumberland), I agree with the comments by “lifelong cumber”, especially considering that school budgets make up such a huge portion of municipalites’ overall budgets (approximately 70%).

Lifelong Cumberlander's premise might not really be accurate that it's about mismanagement and bad math.
The school committee is not a taxing authority, they cannot levy taxes. They are fully dependent on the funding provided by the Town Council and the Mayor. The School Committee also must follow state law with regard to not being able to decrease spending. So when the Town Council does not appropriate enough to the School Committee to pay for all contractually promised increases, or even increases that are beyond their control (heat, electricity, etc) they still have to pay the bills. The only way is to cut services. It's not a question of irresponsibility, nor is this the current Mayor or Town Council's fault. The previous mayor was paying bills by pulling from the savings account, which is not a practice that can go on forever and is what Mayor Mutter is putting a stop to. When that stop occurs, it can be painful, which is what's happening now.
So it's not a matter of they need to "manage their budget" because controlling one's income is a part of managing one's budget, and that's not something the school committee is legally allowed to do currently.

If the school department has surplus which means that they have done a great job of managing things why dont they use that first then go from their . Painful isn't the word between the schools and the fire department it is getting difficult to make ends meet .Not getting any younger.

It is time to manage the taxes in this Town. Between the fire tax and the school department budget increases it is up every year. And, yes, not getting any younger. I would like to stay here in retirement, not have to move. Other communities can hold the line and even offer slight decreases, enough is enough.
Zero based budgeting, what do we really need, and what is not necessary, and live within the budget, no frills and extras.

My understanding is that the reason taxes are going up the max 4% is not because of the schools. In fact, in the mayor's proposed budget, the schools were getting a $0 increase, while taxes were going up very close to the max. So, it's not the schools this time.