School Board: Ball back in city’s court

Published 10:07 pm Wednesday, April 10, 2013

After impassioned debate Wednesday, School Board members finally agreed to stick to their guns in a funding request to the city, rather than bite the bullet and determine cuts now.

In the final moments of a lengthy work session, after listening to her colleagues fret over the city’s proposal to fund only a third of the school district’s request for an extra $9 million, veteran member Lorraine Skeeter said, “Maybe the board should just say, ‘We don’t have anything to take off.’”

If the city doesn’t throw Suffolk Public Schools “another few million,” she said, “we will come back and work with this budget as best we can. We’ll take the things off later, if we have to.”

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The school district now will effectively restate its original request after the city asked the school district during a meeting Tuesday to come back with a “realistic figure,” according to School Board Chairman Michael Debranski.

The next meeting between the two entities is potentially April 29 or 30, district Superintendent Deran Whitney said.

While all members seemed agreeable with the plan, Skeeter’s strongest supporters appeared to be Enoch Copeland, the board’s vice chair, and Judith Brooks-Buck.

“We are bending over and doing everything ultimately possible to keep a quality school system intact,” Copeland said.

“Somewhere down the line, people have to make a stand. The old saying is … the person who’s more easily pushed (is) more often pushed. The slave more easily whipped was more often whipped.”

The “ball is being put in our court,” Copeland also said. “Let the ball be in the proper court that controls the funding.”

District Finance Director Wendy Forsman circulated a list at the session detailing “possible reductions.”

Eliminating 20 teaching positions ($1 million), closing Florence Bowser Elementary School ($380,000), cutting 20 assistant teacher positions ($430,000) and eliminating middle school athletics ($65,000) are among the possibilities.

One proposal would extend the period of time workers need to stay with the district to receive post-employment benefits from 10 to 20 years, and another would delay replacing heating and air conditioning equipment that Forsman said is already so old parts are no longer available.

Meanwhile, a 2-percent raise for all staff is among new expenses in the district’s $148-million 2013-2014 spending plan, and board members were split Wednesday over whether to change their earlier decision and accept an offer from the General Assembly to offset the cost.

The state’s $913,297 offer would fund the raise for Standards of Quality teaching positions, leaving the division to foot $1.2 million for other staff, according to Forsman; but various aspects concern some board members along with the finance director herself.

Judith Brooks-Buck believes it would be unwise to accept one-off funding that, if not renewed in subsequent years, would leave the district liable. She is also concerned the offer, which Forsman said the governor is yet to sign, will be tied to performance evaluations.

“I am concerned that we are even considering taking the money,” Brooks-Buck told the session. “We don’t know what’s attached to this; there are too many unknowns.”

But Debranski said, “The converse of that is that none of our employees get any raise at all.”

No one disagreed that raises for school district staff are crucial, and it was noted that the city has implementing raises for its staff in recent months — as high as 14 percent for the city manager.

“I think the morale in our schools is going to plummet if we don’t make an effort to give that 2-percent raise,” Linda Bouchard said.