School officials more confident of budget resolution

School officials more confident of budget resolution

CUMBERLAND – Whether through more help from the town, more spending of surplus funds, or both, school officials now seem more confident that their challenging budget picture will be resolved in a reasonable fashion.

School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica said this week that Business Manager Alex Prignano and Mayor Jeffrey Mutter are in regular communication about a number of different scenarios, including the potential coverage of $400,000 in health claims by the town, among others.

There will be cuts to some positions no matter what, said DiModica, with about 26 full-time and part-time positions still up for elimination, down from 33 previously before some retirements.

Some school board members are talking about using savings, or fund balance, to bring the staff members back, he said, but that’s one-time money so they’d be “gone next year anyway.” Some positions could be restored by the mayor and Town Council, he said, and the General Assembly could also make changes that impact the overall budget picture.

Former member and current teacher Dan Pedro said at last Thursday’s School Committee meeting that he opposes a plan to cut a part-time art teacher and part-time music teacher at the elementary schools. The district “is already at an all-time low for the arts,” he said, adding that he opposes a cut to the drama program at the high school as well since there’s a teacher “who would be fantastic at this position” and would be an “absolute crime” to cut it when so many students depend on it.

The committee approved a preliminary budget of $73.2 million, but there’s still a lot of work to do on it before it’s finalized. Member Karen Freedman said officials won’t know for sure what cuts there will be until they’re further along in the process.

Member Mark Fiorillo agreed with DiModica that the committee needs to be careful about using one-time dollars to fund positions. He and others also mentioned that the budget already uses some fund balance.

Supt. Bob Mitchell and school board members said there are a number of important positions up for possible elimination, including teacher’s aides at the preschool and kindergarten level. They said they’re doing the best they can to maintain staffing levels.

Member Heidi Waters questioned why school officials continue to be so reactive to the budget picture every year instead of making “some tough choices earlier in the process.”

“We really need to be a lot more proactive,” she said, adding that they’re “behind the 8-ball” every year.

They should be assuming they’re not getting more money from the town, Waters said. The town is hurting for money just as much as the schools are, she added, yet the budget process keeps coming down to the last minute.

DiModica said he understands where she’s coming from, but the funding does come from the town.

But if the schools know what their numbers are going to be, responded Waters, why are they putting themselves in this position?

Also at the May 14 meeting, Fiorillo said he plans to have the policy and procedures subcommittee discuss pushing off board members’ approved raise from next year to the year after. Those raises could fund a teaching assistant position, he said, and the schools can’t ask unions to forego increases “while we’re getting a substantial increase ourselves.”