School board befuddled over ‘travesty’ of a budget

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MANCHESTER, NH – Four hours of circular debate resulted in no actual decision on a school budget by the Manchester Board of School Committee.

They voted to send both a tax cap budget and a “needs” budget to the Board of Alderman, and will hope for the best.

School Board Chair Mayor Ted Gatsas.

“This budget is a travesty,” said Mayor Ted Gastas, about three-quarters of the way through the nearly four-hour meeting, which began with a board incredulous over the district’s school bus situation. Debate ensued over the purchase of buses, short buses versus long buses, old buses versus new buses, and the burden that busing of charter school students has added to the mix.

The meeting ended with the board failing to approve a definitive budget or give School Superintendent Dr. Debra Livingston the power to lay-off teachers, should the budget fall short.

In between, Gatsas chided Livingston and the school administration more than once for not pursuing avenues of possible budget reductions, including initiating some of his favored ideas including distance learning and adding a sixth class for teachers to pick up the slack.

At-Large Board Member Rich Girard said that while he didn’t disagree with Gatsas, he believed there was not enough time between now and the next scheduled school board meeting to investigate fully the effect of such measures.

A suggestion to schedule a supplemental meeting before May 2 also failed, given the impending school vacation week, and perceived lack of public transparency that might result from working outside the prescribed process.

Special Education Director Nash Reddy.
Special Education Director Nash Reddy.

During discussion over the growing cost of special education, talk turned to the price tag for providing services to a finite number of students who are “court appointed” or those placed in programs outside the district for other reasons, whether due to foster care placement or homelessness.

Special Education Services Director Nash Reddy answered questions about the district’s special education budget, explaining that services provided for students with the greatest needs have been decreasing in recent years, while the need for services is growing. There are about 85 students currently receiving outside placement at any given time due to court appointments, and about 19 percent of district students identified with Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

Reddy also fielded questions about the costs to the district of placing special needs students outside of the district, which revived a dead-end discussion about creating an alternative school program within the district, to eliminate transportation and reimbursement costs.

Reddy stressed that the objective is to meet students’ educational needs, and advised the board that many of the cases currently before the school administration includes students in tough situations – family strife, or crime, truancy or other court-related issues. She ultimately said that she would like to see the district  build a program with current staff, however it would require dedicated space.

Mary Ngwanda Georges of Ward 3.
Board member Mary Ngwanda Georges of Ward 3.

Ward 3 Board Member Mary Ngwanda Georges asked why the Sununu Center could not be tapped as a site to serve students with disciplinary issues who might otherwise be bused out of the city for educational services.

At that point, Livingston offered some of her proposed budget reductions in the tax cap budget, including a big hit to supplies, text books and deferred maintenance, as well as not filling positions of those slated for retirement.

Ward 10 Board Member John Avard raised the question of making cuts in athletics, saying it would be prudent to at least ask athletic directors to evaluate existing participation in certain programs.

Board member John Avard, Ward 10.
Board member John Avard, Ward 10.

“Can we justify cutting an AP science class in deference to an athletic program with one student?” Avard said.

Gatsas rejected Avard’s position, refocusing the discussion on re-evaluating “extra” expenses, such as teacher workshops that require substitute teachers, sometimes with “blocks” of teachers from one school gone at any given time.

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long stepped up to the microphone to promote the idea of bringing together both full boards, teachers, and principals to make a final budget decision. The session would include input from those seated on board committees who may have some greater insight into how to make the budget work, Long said.

Livingston requested that the board grant her permission to begin the process of reducing staff in advance of May 10, which led to a long back-and-forth over whether to send the administrator’s requested budget to the board of aldermen or the tax cap budget.

Ward 4 alderman Leslie Want said she was “overwhelmed” by the direction of the discussion.

Ward 4 Board Member Leslie Want.
Ward 4 Board Member Leslie Want.

“We have a dying, starving animal here and we’re picking at the bones. We’re talking about less than a half a percent of our budget. It’s the equivalent of adding $65 to your tax bill for a $200,000 home. Why are we having this conversation? Why aren’t we supporting the superintendent’s budget? What is this board supposed to do, if we can’t support her needs budget, which is by no means extravagant, why are we sitting here?” Want said.

Ward 5 Board Member Lisa Freeman brought up the decline in student enrollment – 400 fewer than last year by her calculation – and asked whether that would support reduction of staff.

Livingston said it would.

Gatsas returned to the argument that the board should have seen this coming when they approved the most recent teachers’ contract. Avard countered that the 1.45 percent increase in teacher salaries and benefits is not solely to blame for the district’s expanding budgetary needs.

The board then embarked on a flurry of roll-call votes – a vote to send the tax cap budget to the board of aldermen passed. A vote to also send the administrator’s “needs” budget to the board passed as well.

Ward 2 Board Member Debra Gagnon Langton.
Ward 2 Board Member Debra Gagnon Langton.

Then, Ward 2 Alderman Debra Gagnon Langton made a motion that school board members give up their health care benefits, which would add back about $200,000 to the budget and potentially save some teachers’ jobs. That motion failed, after Avard pointed out that legal counsel last year advised the board that such a vote by a sitting board would be “conflict of interest” and would not necessarily help with the 2017 budget math.

Ward 9 Board Member and vice-chair Arthur Beaudry moved that administrators be cut before teachers, and that they be cut by seniority, a motion which also failed, as did a motion by Ward 6 Dan Bergeron to poll students for ideas to save money and generate revenue.

Gatsas wrapped up the meeting by again making a pointed directive to Livingston. He was incredulous that over the past seven months little work had been done by the administration to find creative solutions for easing the budget shortfall.

“The administration shouldn’t take vacation next week. They should be right here, working this out,” Gatsas said. “Rifting teachers doesn’t cut it for me.”

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About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!