News Column

School funding dominates council budget hearing

June 11, 2014

By James Niedzinski, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.



June 11--THE CITY'S SCHOOL FUNDING -- or what some would call its "underfunding" -- was the main topic of discussion during a City Council public hearing Tuesday night.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk submitted a school district budget of $37.9 million for fiscal 2015, which starts July 1, and that's an increase of $1 million compared to the current year's budget, which runs through June 30.

But school officials have been asking the city's administration for an extra $600,000 to match the budget approved by the School Committee, saying the $1.6 million boost from the current year's spending is needed to meet the level of services the schools current provide.

"Our goal this year is to preserve what we had," said Jonathan Pope, chairman of the School Committee. He said that was only accomplished by freezing the budget last year and depleting reserve funds.

"We're not really level-service funded," he said. "We're going to freeze the budget the day after it's passed."

Pope said that costs for special needs students now constitute about 28 percent of the school district budget, and noted a rising rate in the number of youths who are diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum.

"The point is we have depleted all of our reserves for special needs in order to not have any cuts," he said.

Pope noted all city departments need money, but the city is required by law to provide education for all students.

"And ultimately, if we don't have the money, they don't come looking for us, they come looking for you guys," Pope said addressing the City Council.

Fellow School Committee member Kathy Clancy read aloud a letter from Janet Donovan, a fourth grade teacher at East Gloucester Elementary.

Donovan's letter asked the City Council to provide adequate funding for math programs in particular, to bring the district more aligned with national Common Core standards.

"We're here on behalf of our kids," Clancy added.

After some prodding by acting City Council president Sefatia Romeo Theken, Pope confirmed the district is still paying for some special needs students who no longer live in Gloucester, but list Gloucester as their last known address.

Another scenario for special needs costs, Pope said, is that there are children who are essentially wards of the state, but their parents' last known address is in Gloucester.

Romeo Theken asked if there is "anything we can do as a community" to lower the costs of special education, a problem that has come up in Rockport as well.

Pope noted the state does pay back money to partially offset those costs, but that state money is subject to funding. The so called "circuit breaker" money funds up to 75 percent of some special education costs after an initial $42,000 is spent, Pope said.

He said "the big killer" is that state aid doesn't include transportation to for special needs students. The district spent roughly $1 million in transporting special education costs last year.

Some students basically travel by taxi cab for a couple hundred dollars a day, Pope said.

The lease for the St. Ann's School -- which was negotiated by the administration, not the School Committee -- also came up during the hearing.

"Who's paying that first year, is that coming out of city, or is that coming out of schools?" Romeo Theken asked.

The first year of the lease costs $292,000 and runs 18 months. The money was initially set to come from the city's Public Works department, as they handle the maintenance for schools. But, the city's administration later said the money should come from the school budget.

"It doesn't seem it should be in our budget," Pope said.

The end result? It's still up for discussion, Pope said, smiling and patting Acting Mayor Paul McGeary on the shoulder.

"It is under serious discussion," McGeary said.

City Clerk Linda Lowe also read two additional letters submitted from residences about the budget, one from Jason Grow, a vocal critic of Kirk's school spending levels. His letter touched on the amount of school choice students and their matching funds going out of district.

Grow's letter urged the City Council to put school funding back on the front burner.

Budget talks will continue during a Council Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting at City Hall today at 4 p.m.

We will update this story here at gloucestertimes.com as more news develops and information becomes available. To have text updates regarding any budget changes or other breaking news coverage sent to your mobile phone, just sign up for the Times' free text-alert service on the gloucestertimes.homepage.

For more up-to-date coverage, follow the Times news team on Twitter.com@gdtnews. For full coverage, look to tomorrow's print and online editions of the Gloucester Daily Times and gloucestertimes.com.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-675-2708, or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.

___

(c)2014 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

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Source: Gloucester Daily Times (MA)


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