An exasperated Marion Finance Director Judy Mooney set the tone of the March 9 meeting of the ORR School Committee and Tri-Town town officials when she dug her heels in the sand, drew a line, and told the school committee it brought the school district’s financial problems on itself through poor contract negotiations with teachers and school administration.
Mooney said the proposed $320,000 increase (a 2.5% increase) to the ORR budget that the three towns agreed to was the bottom line, and the school district would have to accept that. The amount is about $380,000 less than what it would take to fund the school committee’s proposed budget and about $252,000 less than needed to fund a level-funded ORR budget.
ORR School Committee Chairman Tina Rood asked the town administrators, selectmen, and finance committee members of the three towns where that seemingly arbitrary $320,000 number came from, and Mooney took the chance to speak up first.
“There is only a Proposition 2½ growth … year after year of new available funds,” said Mooney. “You’re already over, even this $320,000. Let me put that right out there.”
This year, Marion is the town being hit with the higher increase in its ORR assessment, accounting for $229,000 of that $320,000 overall proposed increase. Mattapoisett faces an increase in its assessment by $191,000, and Rochester will see a drop in its assessment by $103,000 after getting the hardest assessment hit last fiscal year.
The Town of Marion will only see an increase in revenue this year of about $555,000, according to Mooney. Town health insurance is going up by 11%, and the towns are facing assessment increases from Old Colony and Bristol Aggie, as well. That $320,000 number the three towns came up with, Mooney said, is still higher than Marion can afford right now. As it stands with its own budget, Marion is still $144,000 in the red for fiscal year 2018.
“We do not have an open wallet,” Mooney said, her voice steadily increasing in volume expressing frustration. “I’d love to have an open wallet and give everybody what they want, but we told you last year, when you’re signing on contracts … it’s an issue you put on yourself with some contracts that you signed.”
Mooney said the district couldn’t afford a 3% increase to teacher contracts, especially given that the school committee agreed to a 70/30 health insurance split for new hires.
“It becomes a huge hit,” said Mooney. “I said it last year, if you keep going this route, you’re going to be in a structural deficit, and here we are, in a structural deficit.”
Mooney’s diatribe did not stop there.
“I have kids in this school system! I hate to see this happen, because you’re taking away things that my kids deserve, but you know what? I’m looking at huge raises here. Six, seven (percent), come on!”
Although the contracted salary increase is 3%, some teachers who increased their education or moved up in employment steps received higher than a 3% increase, as Business Administrator Patrick Spencer clarified in a follow-up interview.
You wanted to know where that $320,000 number came from, Mooney said to Rood, who tried defending the pay raises by saying teachers went three years without one.
“You’re putting us in a very bad situation,” said Mooney, adding that she has been monitoring the school committee’s contract negotiations over time.
“And we’re not going anywhere else besides that [$320,000],” Marion Finance Committee Chairman Alan Minard chimed in. “Face it!”
The heat from the three towns continued.
“Your level-service [budget] is four percent because you settled on contracts that are too high for anyone to support,” Mooney said.
Marion Selectman Steve Gonsalves called it “financial mismanagement,” criticizing the school committee for not running the school more like a business.
“Education can’t be an open pocketbook where we keep reaching in for money,” said Mattapoisett Selectman Jordan Collyer.
Phrases such as “That’s the reality!” and “We can’t afford it!” rang out from around the conference table all at once.
Mattapoisett Town Administrator Michael Gagne summed it up using the “piece of the pie” analogy.
“The municipalities can’t afford to give you more than the $320,000 and fairly treat the other agencies that they have to fairly budget,” Gagne said, mentioning health insurance cost increases of 12% the school district should have foreseen and which now account for $431,000 of the ORR budget. “You’ve got some issues … but you got some fiscal issues, you’ve got to grab them.”
Gagne also criticized the school district’s lack of any “meaningful” OPEB (other post-employment benefits) savings. “We are forced by the laws to collect x dollars, we don’t get x plus three [percent] without a Proposition 2½ override.” And if the district needs more money, he added, then an override would be necessary, but don’t count on Marion voters to approve that, he said.
That goes for Mattapoisett as well, said Collyer. “Mattapoisett will not approve an override. It’s not fiscally responsible,” he said.
“You have to stay within your budget and you haven’t,” said Rochester Selectman Richard Nunes, “and your contracts haven’t.”
Rood retorted, “Our number one resource is our staff for our kids.”
“Your teachers are your most valuable resources…. I hope they’re saying we’re their most valuable resource…. I’d love to have what they have, but we’re living in a Proposition 2½ world … we can’t live this way. And you’re throwing it on us but it’s really on you. We told you this last year!” Mooney said.
Some in attendance watching the meeting, such as Marion School Committee members Michelle Smith and Christine Marcolini, said it was the children now who were being “punished.”
Facing a very real possibility of that “right-column” conservative budget that would leave some items unfunded such as technology instruction, music instruction and band in the junior high, less art instruction, technology upgrades, and positions the district needs like an additional guidance counselor and a special education coordinator, Rood asked the others, “How can we work together, because that number that you have suggested is so devastating to the school.”
“We don’t have any more money,” said Minard.
Conceding, Rood said, “I will look at the numbers you have given me, and we will talk about them at the budget sub-committee meeting.”
This is a united front across the three towns, Rochester Finance Committee Chairman Kris Stoltenberg said. “We are now really united … and I will join Mattapoisett and Marion and join their cause … just as I hope they’ll fight for us.”
The ORR School Committee will seek to make up some of the budget gap by adding additional School Choice slots to fund the $18,345,489 level-service budget it proposed.
After another lengthy discussion and a long pause of silence, Collyer said, “I hate that we have to sit here and have this conversation.”
“You have to realize,” Mooney said to the school committee members. “You’re just one piece of our pie.”
Mooney warned the committee that the district would likely be looking at the same $320,000 number next year as well.
Superintendent Doug White said, “I think the committee heard you, and we’ll go back and address what has been heard tonight.”
White suggested a future meeting where representatives from the school district could sit with selectmen from all three towns and just have a conversation about the future of education and what a 21st century education will mean for the students, the district, and the three towns.
“Education is changing dramatically,” White said. “What we have to offer and what we’ll need to do for our students is not the same as it was even five years ago.”
The three towns agreed to the idea.
In closing, Rood said, “As school committee members, we’re here to advocate for those students’ needs. They don’t get to vote, and they are the future,” she continued. “We are asking for what is needed to support our kids.”
By Jean Perry