By Steven Fletcher
Facing a mayoral budget that calls for cutting their own spending plan by more than $600,000 — $350,000 below the current year's level — Gloucester school officials maintained Wednesday that they have a "responsible" fiscal 2012 budget, which carries a $275,000 spending hike.
The Department's proposed $34.4 million budget reflected a $1.329 million cut to the original "level service" budget drafted earlier this year, after city administration requested that the district level fund. On Tuesday, however, Mayor Carolyn Kirk presented a budget calling for below level funding, or $629,000 below school officials' proposal.
Joseph Connelly, Gloucester's interim superintendent of schools, said that would clip 37 full and part time positions from the school payroll — resulting in a budget just shy of 33.33 million.
"I'm disappointed that the mayor, who's a member of the school committee has requested additional cuts below her initial request that we be level funded," said Val Gilman, who chairs the city's School Committee.
Kirk's budget highlighted the city's nearly $43.6 million overall education expenses, describing those expenditures as being more than the 50 percent of the city's total budget of $87 million.
The amount covers the proposed school budget, school choice and Gloucester Community Arts Charter School expenses, retired teacher's health insurance, and tuition paid to the regional vocational school.
Kirk suggested that school costs could be mitigated by defunding some wage increases, and by savings garnered from successful negotiations with the employee unions regarding health insurance costs.
Connelly said the school system will spend an additional nearly $349,000 on employee health insurance next year, up 9.4 per cent from current costs. He added, however, that the current fiscal 2012 school budget proposal already absorbs these costs and the loss of $890,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — of Stimulus Act — dollars.
Beyond the actual schools' budget, the city administration's fiscal 2012 spending plan also calls for privatizing building maintenance and custodial staff in the schools and other city buildings, which would pare another 24 jobs off the city payroll.
The city is looking to outsource the majority of cleaning at the middle and high schools, leaving one city employee on staff per building. Kirk said the elementary schools would not see to much of a change.
Gilman said the cuts worry the district. The School Committee, she said, is concerned that the proposed budget would not give the incoming superintendent, Richard Safier, the tools required to keep up district initiatives.
"We're not quite sure how she expects the schools to perform when she won't fund them," added School Committee member Kathleen Clancy.
Kirk noted that the School Committee's current budget proposal includes slightly over $1 million in wages and benefit increases. That amount includes the $349,000 in employee health insurance, built into the school budget, another $300,000 in fully funded step and track contract obligations, $250,000 for an across-the-board wage increase and $150,000 for funding additional wage increases in potential new contracts now under negotiation.
Gilman, however, said the School Committee views the increases as responsible — adding that $644,000 budgeted for the same increases on the city side of Kirk's spending plan does not include results from all union contracts. To date, the city has a new contract with its police patrolman's and superior officers' unions, but other talks — including one for the firefighters' union — remain unresolved.
Gilman said the School Committee has budgeted the 1 percent — or $150,000 overall — increase because it allows the committee to negotiate in good faith.
"It allows our FY2012 budget to more accurately reflect the real expenses that are required to run a school district with 522 employees," Gilman said in an e-mail message.
"Our school district has contracts that we need to negotiate," she added, "and frankly we don't have the options that the city has to find funds to finance and settle contracts."
She said the School committee will use whatever funds may result from negotiations with Gloucester's Teachers' Association to dampen the cuts.
Andrea Pretzler, president of the association, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Money reeled in through contract negotiations may be all that school officials will get to hit level funding.
The Gloucester Education Foundation and the Gloucester Fisherman's Athletic Association fund programs, Clancy said, that provide educational enrichment in different ways to the schools and Gloucester students, but don't provide dollars for regular school operational and curriculum expenses.
Jane Cunningham, volunteer coordinator for the Gloucester Education Foundation and a parent of students in the school system, said the foundation and the generosity of donors will continue to be important to the district.
"We're going past the bone at this point," she said in an e-mail message. "We are now forced to decide between what's more important, public safety of the education of our children.
"Who's happy with this budget plan?" Cunningham asked. "I'm guessing nobody."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. .