Extra school funding denied by Lincoln voters
Extra school funding denied by Lincoln voters
LINCOLN - Parents who campaigned for a $500,000 increase to the school budget to combat overcrowded elementary school classes left the four-hour Financial Town Meeting Monday night empty-handed as voters decided $51.1 million was enough to educate the town's children.
Without that extra funding, the future of those classes is still teetering. Supt. Georgia Fortunato said Tuesday that her team would have to head back to the drawing board to see if they can come up with at least $200,000 to keep two full-time teachers and two teacher assistants in Central Elementary School and Lonsdale Elementary School from being laid off.
She said a decision is expected to be made by the School Committee meeting on Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Middle School.
"It is of paramount importance for me and the School Committee to reduce class size," Fortunato said, adding that she appreciates the support received by the town. "This is my major priority."
Fortunato said she was disappointed by the 231-173 vote that killed the resident petition, especially after she, Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond, and members of the School Committee and Budget Board had reached an informal agreement to support amending the half-million dollar increase to $200,000.
School Committee member Kristine Donabedian was the first to the microphone to offer the amendment and explain to residents that the other funds originally included in the petition for the self-insured medical claims line were taken care of through an agreement that a supplemental increase would be proposed next year should the claim line cause the school budget to default.
But even with that concession, what transpired was far from simple. Hours of passionate testimony and two secret ballot votes later, democracy was certainly alive and well in Lincoln, and so was the tedium that can often tag along.
First up to muddy the waters was a $43,000 amendment to the $200,000 addition, added by a resident who sought to save the job of a part-time social worker at Lincoln High School whose position was eliminated in the School Committee's proposed budget earlier this year.
Then came the succession of votes. On the petition alone, residents had to vote to amend $500,000 to $200,000, then to amend that to $243,000, then to make $243,000 the main motion.
It was that motion that was finally defeated.
Peppered in to the general sense of confusion were questions of whether the $500,000 was ever part of its own motion, and why residents were seemingly voting repeatedly on the same point.
Impatience grew as residents twice called the question, halting discussions. One woman felt the wrath of more than 400 of her neighbors as they shouted "No!" at her when she approached the microphone for a quick point-of-order clarification.
While it increased the petition amount to only a fraction of the school's $51.1 million proposed budget, the $43,000 amendment that replaced $200,000 in a vote of 235-227 forced residents and officials to shine a spotlight on the fact that the town only approves a bottom line budget for the schools.
"What we're voting on is funds, not how the funds are going to be spent," said resident Leo Tetreault. "That additional money is not going to be spent any way that the school department doesn't want to spend it."
The school department is not obligated to use that $43,000 for a social worker, officials confirmed, effectively prompting a change in the discourse from a promise to use specific funds to add teachers in overcrowded schools into a more philosophical question of the worth of educational investments.
Retirees talked about funding an increase in education while they live on fixed incomes. One woman questioned why those without school children should have to see their taxes increase for a larger education budget.
"We just can't keep giving and giving and giving and giving," said former Town Councilor Ronald McKenna. "I would expect our School Committee to take the lead on keeping the costs down ... and not just rubber stamp everything presented to them by school administrators."
Teachers and parents spoke to the needs of the kids and commended educators for working with limited resources.
"The teachers I know that I work with give 110 percent," said Lincoln Middle School special educator Tom Mellen. "We are maxed out."
He said students are not the same ones he went to school with 20 years ago, and that with changing times, and traumatic stories in the news, kids need additional supports.
Mary Ann McComiskey, the full-time social worker at LHS whose position was not in jeopardy, said she had "a morally ethical obligation" to speak for keeping her part-time counterpart.
"We are not going to be able to meet the needs of the students in the town of Lincoln with this reduction," she said, calling the cut "detrimental" and "a disaster waiting to happen."
While McComiskey said she will be the only licensed mental health care provider in the district, Fortunato told The Breeze the cut was made after discussions with the LHS principal and district student services director because Lincoln already has a full-time psychologist, a full-time social worker, a full-time student adjustment counselor and a full guidance department staff.
After the meeting, Donabedian said that while she respects the fair and democratic process, "It is unfortunate that a worthy effort to alleviate overcrowded classrooms was obstructed by an attempt to restore a part-time position deemed unnecessary by the superintendent and eliminated by unanimous vote of the School Committee."
Budget Board member William McManus spoke of efficiency in the school budget Monday night, comparing it to challenges faced in the private sector.
"The problem is, we don't make boxes, we don't make automobiles, we don't make computers," LMS special educator Mellen said.
Resident Joseph Goho, also principal at North Providence High School, said the school department had acted efficiently by closing Fairlawn School years ago and reducing teaching staff by 30 over the past decade.
"With all due respect for the gentleman looking for a slight reduction in his tax bill," Goho said, "the 6- and 7-year-olds and 5-year-olds sitting in classes with 25 kids are probably looking for a slight reduction in their class size."
Nathan Green, father to a student in one of the overcrowded Central kindergarten classes, said that while he would vote for the additional funding, "it just seems crazy" that the money could not be found in the existing $51.1 million budget, especially when administrators are receiving raises.
"I think the $200,000 will be found if it does not pass," he said. "I am confident the School Committee will find the funds."