GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 27, 2012

Schools seek cash for exiting charter kids

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The Gloucester School District has requested their own chunk of cash from the city’s pot of leftover fiscal 2012 dollars, seeking help not only with repairs and upgrades, but also for “unanticipated special education expenses and plus tutoring,” with the school noting that “coming changes” could increase the district’s financial needs.

When the School Committee notes district changes, it’s referring in part to the closing of Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s closing, slated for the end of June, according to Superintendent Richard Safier. The public schools have taken on 14 charter school students since the start of November, and have spoken with a handful of other students regarding transfers in the past week, he said.

Safier and the School Committee produced a prioritized list of requests totaling about $691,000 of the city’s $4.8 million in so called “free cash,” or unbudgeted funds. Of that amount, the school committee is requesting $248,418 for the school’s top priority, unanticipated tutoring and special education expenses.

“The city needs to be open to the idea that we might need to make some additional requests,” Safier said. “If students come back, then we will be seeking to integrate them into our programs.”

Faltering MCAS scores in the math category were one of the factors in the charter school’s demise, causing some to insist that students returning to the Gloucester public schools from the charter would require tutoring and extra help. While Safier declined to comment specifically on charter school students, he said the public schools need to be able to cater to all students they acquire.

“If a student comes into the district and enrolls and we find that their reading levels are low or their math skills, we need to find a way to provide remediation for them, and we will do that,” Safier said.

According to Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s December State of the City presentation, however, almost 60 percent of the city’s annual budget already goes straight to the schools. From the city’s current fiscal year budget of $78 million, the schools already receive about $46 million, including $1.2 million to pay for students who choose to attend schools outside of the district, and another $1.3 million to cover the cost of Gloucester students at the charter school.

Kirk, at a school committee meeting last week, asked the School Committee to hold back on too actively campaigning for students, as the charter needs to maintain a population of 110 students in order to stay open through the year’s end.

Still, Safier said at the meeting, the district will be ready to absorb any transferring students, now or in the fall.

“We are confident that, whether it is a process that takes place over the course of the school year up to next September, or if there should be any other disruption, then we are prepared to accommodate any and all contingencies,” Safier said.

Of the public school committee’s nearly $700,000 in requested “free cash” funds, $39,100 would buy new cafeteria tables and benches. Plus, the committee is requesting $32,000 for computer lab upgrades and $80,000 for new lockers at O’Maley Middle School. And, last on its prioritized list, the committee is seeking funds for electronic tablets for student use, additional technologies, an assessment program and library books.

The school’s “free cash” request is one of many the mayor has received, according to City Hall Chief Administrative Officer James Duggan, but the city will be unable to fulfill some of the requests, he said. Of the $4.8 million in “free cash” funds, Kirk already intends to invest $600,000 in the city’s stabilization fund, according to Duggan.

Duggan called the stabilization fund a “priority,” saying it is “a strong possibility” that the city would then push another $2.1 million into that same stabilization fund, leaving about $2.1 million for allotment to requests from various city departments.

“We have to scrutinize the requests and prioritize,” Duggan said. “We have to maintain that fiscal discipline like we’ve done in the years past.”

Duggan said he plans to meet with Kirk and Gloucester chief financial officer Jeff Towne next week to shuffle through requests and decide which ones to can and which to fulfill.

“In a quick review of them, there are some very, very reasonable requests, some that are minimal at best,” Deggan said. “And then there are some that ask for much more than others.”

Though the city is technically able to disperse the so-called “free cash” almost immediately, requiring just a vote of approval from city councilors, the councilors had asked that the mayor compile a comprehensive budget for spending the funds before requesting their approval. That vote should come around mid-January, according to Duggan.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.