School shortfall gets heated response

Published 9:06 pm Thursday, April 4, 2013

Disappointed School Board members are contemplating how they can possibly slash at least $4.5 million from an already-lean school district budget without impacting the level of public education available in the city.

On Wednesday, the city manager proposed a fiscal year 2014 spending plan that would grant only $3 million from an extra $9 million requested in the corresponding school district budget.

With the school system set to receive $1.5 million more than anticipated in state and federal funding — according to city Budget Director Anne Seward’s assertion at the Wednesday work session, at least — the $6 million shortfall could improve slightly to $4.5 million.

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Three School Board members available for comment Thursday vowed to do all they can to salvage public education in Suffolk as they begin contemplate where the ax should fall.

Phyllis Byrum said, “We have got to keep instruction at a high level; we have to do everything possible to maintain (instruction levels) with what we are given.”

Bryum declined to specify where she thinks cuts should be made, though, having not yet fully digested the news out of city hall.

Linda Bouchard questioned whether the city is using “fuzzy math” over its claim of extra state and federal funds that the school district apparently hadn’t accounted for.

The city Thursday did not respond to an emailed request to clarify the claim, and school administrators are on spring break.

It is unclear whether the $1.5 million includes a one-off “strings attached” offer from the governor of a state-funded raise for core teachers, contingent on matching local funds and performance evaluations, which the district has declined.

Bouchard also took issue with how the city says it would deliver the additional $3 million — raising the real estate tax by 6 cents, with half the extra revenue going to schools and the other half offsetting declining real estate assessments.

“I own property in Suffolk, and I’m going to pay a lot more money. … This seems really incredibly horrible,” she said.

Bouchard suggested balancing the shrunken budget by not replacing aging HVAC systems and canceling salary adjustments for teachers in their seventh, eighth and ninth years with the district.

“The next place is furloughs or to eliminate positions,” Bouchard continued. “The last thing, I’m hoping … would be to get rid of the IB (International Baccalaureate) program and engineering (STEM) program. Those are tremendously successful and help us compete. Of course, we would probably have to increase class sizes.

“The bottom line is we are going to do the best we can to continue to get better, to be an up-and-coming school system, but it’s obviously going to be very difficult.”

Judith Brooks-Buck said that while the school district has been “honest, open … more than transparent” with the city, the city is using a “political ploy” by blaming the proposed real estate tax increase on the school system.

“I believe the voting populace is very intelligent, and they understand what’s going on,” she said. “I hope they will be able to determine this is just a political ploy to put the real estate tax increase on the school district.”

She took umbrage with City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn’s comment during the Wednesday work session that the school division’s $9-million request was a “disconnect with the reality of available city resources.”

“Maybe there is a disconnect, but I’m not sure who has the disconnect,” Brooks-Buck said. “I’m disappointed with city officials who make a comment like that, because it’s unnecessary and it’s unfair. We have children living within the borders of Suffolk, and by law we must educate them.”

The present reality where “teachers have to ask parents to provide hand sanitizer” will weaken the city’s future social fabric, she said.

“We can’t expect students to sit in schools crumbling around them,” she said.