School board faces questions on spending

Questions on the school budget — from pay to play to school supplies, textbooks to Chromebooks — dominated the agenda Thursday in what was the first of regular quarterly meetings between the Board of Aldermen and Board of Education.
All members in attendance called the first such joint meeting positive, as both city entities talked candidly about various topics — all with an eye toward ending the animosity, whether real or perceived, that appears to exist between the boards.
"We’re here to bury all hatchets, to clear the air,” said Board of Aldermen President John Anglace, adding that his board is focused on how the school board spends its money annually. “We are going to have differences, but if we get them on the table, we can get closer to understanding on what you need and what we need.”
The rift between the two boards reached its height with the release of the city audit several weeks ago, in which the auditor found approximately $3 million in deficits in the school accounts. The Board of Education questioned the findings, even filing a complaint against the auditor and his firm. In the meantime, the Aldermen have filed a lawsuit against the school board seeking $2.6 million to cover what it deemed funds spent over the allotted appropriation over a two-year period.
The city and school finance departments have been in contact in recent weeks to form a "more precise way of providing education spending information that city officials can understand. Among the agreed upon changes now in effect are the scheduling of quarterly meetings between the boards; the school finance department preparing its annual budget to mirror the budget created by the city; creating a definition of terms, so city officials understand the terminology used by school officials; a clearly defined capital vs. operating budget; and creation of a committee to look at long-term technology purchase options.
Ray O’Leary, presently consulting with the Board of Aldermen in its dealings with the Board of Education, also urged school officials to provide regular financial updates to the Aldermen and recommended these updates be placed online as well for easy access.
School Finance Director Rick Belden said that the annual school budget book will mirror that of the city, to allow for the Aldermen to easily understand all requests. Belden said his goal is to provide context to the numbers so that all who study the budget know where all dollars are being spent.
“I understand there are times transfers are needed,” said Anglace to school officials about the education budget spending. “By sitting with you quarterly and reviewing the year-end results, we will know what we have never known before — where the money is spent. I hope this approach will change our relationship, and make it a better one.”
Mayor Mark Lauretti’s budget plan keeps the school budget at $72.7 million, the same as the current year. But municipal leaders state that the Board of Education is receiving an extra $1.5 million due to the city taking over the school bus transportation. The Board of Education had sought $74.8 million. Either amount will, according to school officials, lead to eliminating personnel.
Among the questions of the school officials present was where money collected for school supplies, pay-to-play for sports and clubs, and student parking are spent.
Belden said the pay-to-play funds are used to cover costs such as officials, league entrance costs and paying ticket takers. In the end, school Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet said that there is more than $1 million for sports and clubs related expenses, and the present budgets do not help cover those costs. Parking fees go toward security — not personnel — and work in the high school parking lot.
Alderman David Gidwani said that every year, 35 to 40 days after the start of school, social media “blows up” with claims of no paper.
“We are tired of hearing that,” said Gidwani.
“I am getting tired of hearing it, too,” said Clouet.
Clouet said that two factors are in play — first is the need to order such supplies in a timely fashion, and second, to guarantee that paper already delivered is made more accessible to the teachers who most need it.
"It is frustrating when everyone wants a $90 million school system, with school sports, AP classes, computers, run on $72 million,” said Clouet. “We just can’t do it. We can’t afford to do it with the allocation we have.”
Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden said, if the mayor’s budget is adopted, his board will need find $2.17 million in cuts beyond what school officials anticipated. One of the things likely to happen is closing school buildings after the school day weekdays and on weekends.
Holden said that hurt community groups, after-school activities and local recreational leagues, but “that is something we can do that does not take away from our core mission, but we know all those things are valuable.”
"Every year, and this is my fourth budget, I hear from you, Mark, on social media and in the paper … that things are going to happen and then a lot of times they don’t happen," said Alderman Jim Capra about statements on potential cuts to school personnel or services if the board’s budget is approved as proposed by the mayor. “For me, for the Board of Aldermen, this comes across as a scare tactic, and that just divides us even more. Be real. Tell me, if it happens, then it happens. I respect you, I just think that is what divides us, these scare tactics.”
Anglace responded that it “does not help when Mark Holden takes to the airwaves ... starts projecting out to public all these things that are going to happen. Knock it off. I’ve told you before, all you are doing is antagonizing the Board of Aldermen. It is not the rest of you, just Mark Holden.”
"I’ve taken a measured approach,” responded Holden.
Anglace disagreed, saying that Holden’s social media comments are causing more of a chasm between the two boards.
“Stay off it,” said Anglace about Holden’s comments on social media.
Amanda Kilmartin said, as someone who is active on social media, she has never seen Holden put someone’s personal information on any sites. She added that residents are upset about the limited funding provided to the school district, they are feeling neglected by city officials and those are potential reasons why items are appearing on social media, and that has "nothing to do with what Mark Holden posts on social media.”
"If we get flat funded, as the mayor proposed, it would require us to cut $2.1 million, and that’s real. It’s not a scare tactic,” said Clouet, adding that, since the main portion of the school budget is personnel, cuts will have to be made in that area.
“People say they want AP programs and sports and music and low class sizes and all of it for no extra money,” said Clouet, “and that is not at all possible.”
Capra said that Holden’s “heart is in the right place” but the goal now is building a bridge between the two boards — and for that to happen, Holden, for example, needs to bring problems to individual board members first.