By Steven Fletcher
Cuts to the School Department's finances and a plan to privatize much of Gloucester's building custodial staff are the primary focus of those speaking out against Mayor Carolyn Kirk's fiscal 2012 budget proposal, pegged to trim school spending below the current year's level and cut 76 overall full-time and part-time city jobs.
Residents who turned out for Tuesday night's City Council budget hearing expressed dismay about the depth of cuts to the School Department's budget, which would set funding $350,000 below the amount budgeted for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Residents and officials from the Sawyer Free Library said they also do not approve of a city proposal to privatize custodial staff in municipal and school buildings. And speakers raised concerns about steering $50,000 into a planned "Emergency Management" sub-department, plus budgets for the Police and Fire Departments.
Kirk laid out the city's budgetary shortfalls, noting that Gloucester will see only a $1 million increase in revenues — a little more than 1 percent from the current year.
The budget gap, Kirk said, stems from the expected loss in the school district's one-time federal stimulus funding, more than $1.5 million in contracted wage increases for city and school employees, cuts in state aid, the need to steer some $575,000 in Chapter 70 funding to the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, upwards of $500,000 in other lost revenues and expenses, and a jump of $750,000 in employee health insurance costs.
Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier, however, said complying with the mayor's request will require an additional $700,000 in cuts to the School Committee's current fiscal 2012 budget — the equivalent of 37.6 full-time positions, spread out over 42 employees.
Safier said the cuts will impact the district's ability to provide quality services, intervene on behalf of children, challenge students, and meet the instructional core.
""The ability to do this is what's at stake as you deliberate on the school budget," he told the council.
Parents who spoke assented to his statements, and said that cuts to the district weren't removing fat, but slicing into muscle. They said teachers in the district were doing more for students with less resources.
Kurt Lichtenwald, the Gloucester High School science teacher who heads the school's robotics program, agreed.
"The product I'm producing now," he said, referring to students he teaches, "is inferior to what it was five years ago."
He said the Science Department alone lost five teachers over the last five years. He said he's worried about the quality of education within the district if cuts continue.
Val Gilman, chairwoman of Gloucester's School Committee, said the district put together a transparent and responsible budget this year.
"There's no slush in the budget this year," she said.
Martin Del Vecchio, parent of a Gloucester public schools student, said the cuts to the school budget reflect the city's priorities.
He questioned whether funding should be going to the $3.5 million Newell Stadium "renewal" project — a joint public-private project for which the city has agreed to bond $1.5 million — ahead of reading materials for school literacy programs.
Former City Councilor Jason Grow said that the city's cuts will continue in the next few years, unless the Council proposes an override of Proposition 2 1/2.
Gloucester hasn't seen an override in several years, and Grow said that economic development is growing at too slow a pace for the city to garner additional revenue.
Other parents expressed concerns that cuts in school funding would drive more students to "choice out" to other districts, and hamper funding even further.
Others expressed concerns about the loss of city custodial staff, with the mayor's budget on track to turn over managing custodial services to a private company.
Carol Gray, Executive Director of the Sawyer Free Library, said that, to keep the library running effectively, it needs a full-time custodian.
Gray, who serves as the library's sole administrator, as the position of assistant director locked up in the city hiring freeze, said she's managing many of the issues the custodian would normally handle.
She said the custodian's position is as much about safety as it is security, and she was concerned that a private service would not be able to provide these as adequately.
Children's Librarian Christy Rosso said the library needs a full-time custodian to keep the building clean and safe for visiting families. She said that vandalism occurs more heavily on the days a custodian isn't there.
Councilor Bob Whynott said that security and safety matter for city buildings. He echoed residents' concerns about a company potentially bringing in employees from out of town, who they don't know and with whom they won't be able to build ties.
"We can't privatize and provide the same service," said Councilor Paul McGeary — though, he added that the city isn't running a jobs service, and localized staff shouldn't be a concern.
Councilor Sefatia Romeo Theken said she opposed the move for privatization as well.
"I, for one, am not going to support any privatization," she said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.