Et tu, Ralph? Notes from last night’s budget meeting

Nobody was smiling last night. And that’s saying something, because the Community Room at Chenery Middle School was filled to overflowing. Around the table was the full Warrant Committee (Belmont’s finance committee), including School Committee Chair Ann Rittenberg, Janice Darias, acting Assistant Superintendent and budget director Tony DiCologero,  Ralph Jones from the Board of Selectmen, Tom Younger, etc. etc.

After watching a video presentation from Superintendent Entwistle’s budget presentation last week.  Janice Darias reviewed the key points of the Administration’s budget and said, in essence, what our Superintendent has been saying for weeks now: the available funds suggested by the Warrant Committee won’t cover the operations cost of the Belmont Public Schools and will necessitate deep cuts: teacher layoffs at the elementary and middle school level, the loss of music and art education,  the loss of curriculum director positions, the elimination of language instruction at the middle school and language electives at Belmont High. The cuts will be deep enough that, as long threatened, BPS will have to revise (read “dumb down”) graduation requirements to accommodate the cuts.

That was followed by some comments from Selectman Ralph Jones (who is running for re-election this year), and that’s where things got interesting.

Let me say, that I like Ralph Jones a lot and think his heart is truly in the right place. He’s been a moderate, fiscally conservative member of BOS. It was Ralph who asked me to research the parking meter question and I think he’s got his brain fully engaged – he’s detail oriented and he’s honestly interested in putting the Town’s accounts in balance. But Ralph’s now running for re-election and he didn’t distinguish himself  last night – addressing an audience of parents who were just told that their kids would be losing music, art and – for the most part -physical education next year by charging, in essence, that the School Administration and School Committee were lying to them, hiding money, and favoring grown ups (i.e school employees) over kids. Nasty!

Let’s unpack this a bit. Ralph’s argument, if I understand it, is that the Administration hasn’t truly presented a level service budget to the Warrant Committee, because the budget they did present didn’t assume that the various unions it must negotiate with would agree to a salary and step freeze for FY2012.

Instead, the administration budgeted for a contractual step increase as part of its Level Services budget – basically budgeting for contractual pay increases, rather than a pay freeze for FY2012. My understanding is that the total of those increases may be between $700,000 and $800,000. Now, its possible that the School Committee will succeed in winning a step and cost of living freeze for next year and be able to reduce its FY 2012 budget by that amount – I’ve heard encouraging chatter to this effect. But its not a foregone conclusion that the teachers will agree to such a freeze, and the schools aren’t banking on it at this point.

That’s, of course, prudent. And the School Department might have broken out “with step” versus “no step” in its Level Service numbers. Banking on a raise is a point worth taking up, for sure, and if I were the School Department or a teacher, I wouldn’t.

But that’s not what Ralph was saying. And what he was saying didn’t win him votes in the room, that’s for sure. How so?

  • By playing parents against teachers and (wrongly) accusing the School Committee and Administration of playing games.
  • By suggesting that the School Committee did not honor the will of Town Meeting in allocating a free cash distribution to keep the elementary school libraries open. The Committee and Administration did better than that – using the money to hire a full time elementary librarian to serve the town’s four elementary schools: the first time the town had had such a position in years. Alas, that position was terminated with the FY 2011 cuts.
  • By saying that the parents in the room had been urged by teaching staff to come – they hadn’t. E-mail was sent out by the school PTOs, not teachers. If an e-mail did go out to a BPS listserv, it was inadvertent, certainly not a coordinated campaign. In any case, portraying worried parents as dupes of the teachers’ union isn’t cool.
  • Finally, he was wrong by claiming that there was money in the budget to cover an almost $3 million gap in school funding, but that the school administration was not being forthcoming or transparent about it. No such thing is true and he knows it. As I said – it may be the case that wage concessions will trim the budget gap facing the schools by as much as $800,000. That will be awesome. It will also leave us with a $2 million gap and nobody is suggesting that there’s that much fat in the budget. It was misleading to suggest there was (and I called Ralph on it).

My take away: we’re going to have to fight like hell to even get an override vote on the ballot, let alone pass it. In doing so, don’t expect too much in the way of help or cover from either the Warrant Committee or the Board of Selectmen. Both showed last night that they’re convinced that the Administration is hiding money – their mantra for much of the last decade, despite the real evidence of cuts and pain on the schools side – and nobody has any swift ideas for bridging the gap or generating new revenue. Except, of course, parking meters, which I’ll be talking to Ralph and the BOS about on Monday. No kidding.