MIDDLETOWN — Mayor Ben Florsheim said in a public address on Friday that he could not support the Board of Education’s proposed budget increase, and called for an independent audit of the board’s financial practices.
Florsheim’s comments were in response to a vote on Thursday by the board to increase the district budget by 6 percent, or $5.5 million, to $97,678,459.
Acting Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos told members of the Common Council and the Board of Education on March 29, that the budget included funding for mental healthcare, including a full-time social worker in every school and an expansion of the ICM Pre-K and ICM kindergarten programs to accommodate a growing number of special education students in the district.
Vazquez-Matos said that 4.5 percent of the 6 percent increase was budgeted for salary increases for staff.
“We were not competitive in recruiting and retaining our highly qualified staff — from teachers to paras and others and so we needed to find a way to really invest,” said Vazquez-Matos.
But Florsheim pointed out that those claims directly contradicted previous assurances by the district regarding staff issues.
“The board and administration have repeatedly denied any staff retention issue exists in Middletown, pointing to national trends in education employment and describing turnover levels as ordinary when controlling for the still-present impact of the pandemic,” said Florshiem.
“Moreover, many of the staff who left the district in recent times have notably done so for lower-paying positions in other school districts outside Middletown, a fact of which the administration and board are well aware.”
Florsheim said that despite claims by the district, the budget proposal actually reduces teacher salaries at multiple schools in the district, including six of the elementary schools. According to Florsheim, it also decreases money for substitute teachers, professional development and additional compensation for teachers.
Florsheim said the board was instead funding multiple positions – some paid six-figure salaries — using the federal coronavirus dollars, without a clear plan for what would happen once those grants expire.
Florsheim also questioned what he called a “lack of transparency” regarding legal fees for the investigation into claims of harassment by current and former employees of the school district.
Common Council responds
Eugene Nocera, the Common Council’s majority leader, said he understood the struggles the board was having finding and keeping staff.
“It’s an issue across the country,” said Nocera. “Fewer and fewer people are going into education. And people are not staying for their careers in one district. So there’s a lot of attrition in and out of schools that could be very problematic.”
But Nocera questioned whether salaries were the reason for staffing difficulties.
“I think when you look at Middletown salaries, we’re slightly above average for the state,” he said. “So I don’t believe that that’s the issue.”
Tony Gennaro, the council’s deputy minority leader, said he agreed with the concerns raised by the mayor.
“[The district] will say, we need the money because we need to retain, but they’ve lost a ton of people too, and … not everybody leaves because of the money. They also just leave when they’re not happy,” said Gennaro. “It’s hard working in a school system … It’s very hard, very difficult, especially in these times and people are leaving because they can’t put up with the stresses of it.”
Gennaro attributed the district’s staffing issues to a combination of low pay, widespread teacher shortages, and the undesirability of temporary grant-funded jobs. Gennaro also said the fighting that has been reported in the schools may be contributing to a poor work environment for teachers.
Florsheim rejects budget increase
Florsheim said he would not approve any increase to the district’s current budget of $92 million, and requested that the Common Council support his call for a forensic audit of the Board of Education.
Nocera said that he “would have to hear more about” the mayor’s proposal for an audit of the board’s financial practices. Gennaro said that he would be in support of a forensic audit since it was something the Republicans had requested for years.
“I hope that we can look at all this and get to the bottom of what’s right and wrong and just make things better. Because that’s the bottom line, to make things better,” Gennaro said.
This story has been updated to clarify comments by Florsheim