FinCom Asks for School Budget Reductions

            On March 24 as the Mattapoisett Finance Committee neared the end of this latest round of FY23 budget reviews, Chairman Pat Donoghue commented that the local schools’ administration (Center and Old Hammondtown Elementary schools) had not provided full disclosure on enrollment numbers and had not taken any steps to trim the annually increasing bottom line.

            “Per pupil costs and teachers’ salaries are high compared to other places, while they’ve lost 25 percent of enrollment,” Donoghue explained. She acknowledged that while some teaching positions have been reduced there, “… has not been a nickel saved.” The FY22 local schools budget is $7,823,908, and FY23 proposed budget is $8,039,560; the figures do not include school debt.

            Donoghue said that other needs in the committee cannot be adequately met given the annual growth of the local schools’ budget and that the town should be “reallocating the resources we have, but every year we give them more … it’s an endless money pit. It’s not fair to the rest of the town.” She went on to say, “Twenty years ago, we made a mistake building out schools … it’s gone too far.”

            Donoghue then specified what she believes the committee needs to move forward in a cooperative manner with the schools’ budget planning ahead of Town Meeting in May to ensure that: 1) Voters are prepared by providing data or full disclosure on expenses and enrollment numbers; and 2) Do not support the FY23 budget as currently presented, should both the Finance Committee and the Select Board choose to withhold support. Donoghue said that the choice is between cutting the schools’ budget or having a Proposition 2.5 override.

            Present for this meeting and on board with Donoghue’s comments were committee members Paul Amoruso, Colby Rottler and Gary Johnson. Also in attendance virtually was member Tom Kelley. Not present for the meeting were members Colleen Trahan and Kevin Geraghty. Town Administrator Mike Lorenco said he shared Donoghue’s concerns.

            Donoghue said that while the FinCom “nickels and dimes” other departments to function with as close to a level budget as possible, the same is not true when it comes to the schools. “We (the taxpayers) supplement OPEB, books, capital needs, health insurance,” she said, alluding to costs that other departments have as budgetary lines. “We have to make noise and be on the same page.”

            Amoruso added his voice saying, “What do they really need? It’s spiraling too high … off the charts. … We won’t be able to pay for it. We have to take control of the budget, get a plan, get people to understand what we can do.”

            Going back to the other needs of the community such as roadway improvements, Council on Aging services and the concerns related to the condition of Town Hall, Donoghue stated, “We have to get in front of Town Meeting and get people thinking about this.” Lorenco said, “We either borrow or override.”

            The committee asked the status of the UMass Boston Collins Center for Public Management study taking place, in part to evaluate municipal building space such as the schools. Lorenco reiterated that the study would not be making recommendations on how to use space but rather what space there is and how it is currently being utilized. Armed with that data, the town could then begin the process of evaluating next steps towards a possible new location for the Town Hall offices.

            Also in attendance was Select Board member Tyler Macallister. Long an advocate for full school-budget disclosure and fiscal planning, Macallister echoed all that had been said. “Speaking strictly for myself, I can’t support this (FY23 local schools’ budget.) We have too much of the total town budget going to one entity. There are budgets that we underserve.”

            Kelley asked what happens if the school budget gets “shot down” at Town Meeting and the prospects of sending a letter to ORR Administration now. Lorenco responded, “Another Town Meeting sometime in the summer for this issue.” He went on to say he agreed that a letter to the school administration asking them to continue working on the local schools’ budget is needed and asking for their cooperation. He said that at Town Meeting someone from the floor could make a motion to approve the budget as presented or send it back for more finetuning. However, he cautioned, “The schools don’t have to accept a levelly-funded budget, that can only happen at Town Meeting.”

            Lorenco said the letter that he intends to draft, then send on for comment to the entire Finance Committee and Select Board before sending on to ORR Administration, would indicate that the two boards request a 0.0-percent increase for FY23 and a formulated plan for cutting expenses.

            The town administrator also stated that the letter would spell out the financial impact from an escalating school budget, a lack of transparency especially regarding school-enrollment numbers, and cost per pupil, which currently stands at $22,000 versus other areas paying $12,000.

            In a follow-up with Select Board member Jodi Bauer, she confirmed to the Wanderer her agreement with Donoghue’s position. Select Board Chairman Jordan Collyer stated in a follow-up, “It is my hope to continue discussions with the superintendent’s office working towards a sustainable budget that can be funded through the years. It’s important to keep dialog open and to find solutions based on need.”

            In response to the Wanderer, ORR District Superintendent of Schools Michael Nelson issued the following statement: “At this time, I am continuing to work with both the school committee’s budget subcommittee and town stakeholders regarding the FY23 school budget proposal. I am confident we can work collaboratively towards a FY23 school budget that meets the needs of all our students.”

            The next meeting of the Mattapoisett Finance Committee is scheduled for Thursday, March 31, at 6:00 pm.

Mattapoisett Finance Committee

By Marilou Newell

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