MIDDLETOWN — The town’s superintendent and Board of Education pushed back hard against recent charges by Mayor Ben Florsheim that the proposed school budget shows a lack of investment in school staff and a lack of transparency.
An eight-page document signed by Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos and Board Chair Deborah Cain offered point-by-point rebuttals to criticism leveled by the mayor in his April 1 budget address, calling the idea that the district was cutting funding for school staff “patently false.”
“Every component of the Board’s proposed budget invests in our employees and our community. Using our strategic operating plan as our guide, we strive to deliver an exceptional educational experience for our students on a daily basis.” .
The board is proposing a school budget of $97 million, an increase of 6 percent, or about $5.5 million over last year.
In a meeting with the Common Council on Tuesday, Vazquez-Matos said that anything less than the six percent would “drastically limit our ability to maintain our baseline.”
Responding to Florsheim’s concern that the budget would still decrease funding for teacher salaries in six of the district’s eight elementary schools, he explained that these cuts were due to the retirement of teachers with higher salaries who were then replaced by teachers earning a lower salary, a common practice in school districts. He said that staff returning to the district were all getting an increase in pay, and that staff salaries were increasing overall by 2.9 percent.
The written rebuttal also noted that of the six percent budget increase, over $3 million was contractually-obligated for staff salary increases. Vazquez-Matos said this would also allow the district to continue recruiting and keeping teachers on staff given the benefits offered by other districts.
Florsheim, however, told CT Examiner in an interview last week that the decreases in the overall spending lines on teacher salaries at the schools were concerning.
“The problem that I see there, and this is something that we deal with on the city side too, is that even when you’re keeping a budget flat, or even if you’re just giving up the contractual increase … that’s still, in many cases, essentially a flat funding or even a reduced level of funding,” he said.
The district also pushed back against some of the mayor’s objections regarding decreases in funding lines for professional development, building substitutes and additional compensation.
Florsheim told CT Examiner that his biggest concern was about transparency. He said that there were certain lines in the budget, such as for paraprofessionals or certified salaries, that included increases or decreases without delineating how many positions were being funded or what those positions were.
“That’s another level of transparency that I think is needed in public budgeting,” he said.
“I have to provide … those supports”
Common Council members continued to air concerns about the proposed budget during a meeting on Tuesday.
Both Council Majority leader Eugene Nocera and Minority Leader Philip Pessina said that a six percent increase was a steep request that would fall on taxpayers in a period when inflation was already placing pressure on people’s personal budgets.
“Especially in these times of unprecedented high cost of living for all of us – gas, food, housing – we all have to be sensitive to those who live paycheck to paycheck,” said Pessina.
Nocera asked during the meeting what the Board of Education was doing to keep costs low in light of the increased rate of inflation, which he said economists were predicting would continue through 2024.
Vazquez-Matos said that he understood the concerns about inflation, and that he was looking at saving money in contracts, facilities costs and looking at staffing. But he said that he also needed to balance the need to save money with the needs of the community.
“I also get the phone calls from the community about the behavioral and mental supports that are needed in our schools,” he said. “I have to provide, as a superintendent, those supports for our families and students.”
Florsheim said he supported the idea of bringing more social workers into the schools, but that he and the council needed to know how many of the current positions were grant funded and how long those grants would last.
Both Nocera and Pessina also raised questions about the board’s funding of administrative positions. Pessina asked about the administrative positions that were being funded through grants, and how those positions would be sustained when the grants ran out.
In its communication regarding the mayor’s budget address, the district responded that the federal government agreed that paying salaries using coronavirus relief funds was an acceptable use of the funds. The district hired two new administrative positions using federal coronavirus relief funds — a Director of Communications and a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, whose salaries will gradually be moved to the operating budget.
The proposed budget includes $68,000 in salary for the DEI director and $25,000 in salary for the communications director, as well as additional funding for benefits. It also includes $165,000 for a “Chief of Talent” to assist in the transition of staff members from under the city to the Board of Education.
Vazquez-Matos said that some of the administrative positions were not new positions, but rather positions that had been repurposed. For example, he said, the Director of Professional Learning and Assessment was the former Director of Professional Learning, and didn’t reflect an addition to the budget.
Vazquez-Matos also said that there was an opportunity to potentially reimagine the organization of the central office staff, and that he would be looking at all the positions to see what was and was not necessary.
Both Pessina and Nocera said they wanted to see funding go toward what Pessina called “frontline” staff — teachers and paraeducators.
“Administrative costs have to be managed. Clearly managed. Because our instruction is the core of what happens in school,” said Nocera. “And that’s sacred ground. Class size is sacred. And it has to be protected.”
“None of us wants to see that”
Council members also raised questions about the legal cost of the ongoing investigation into claims from district staff about harassment and a toxic work environment created by members of the district administration.
Vazquez-Matos wrote in his communication that the district did not budget for additional legal costs in the 2022-23 budget because the district anticipated the investigation being completed this year.
According to the district’s eight-page document, the district has so far this year paid about $342,000 to Thompson Hine, the law firm responsible for conducting the investigation, and $87,000 to Shipman and Goodwin, the Board of Education’s legal counsel. Cheryl Walcott, the district’s financial director, told the council that the money was being taken from the Board of Education’s reserve, which amounts to approximately $700,000.
The mayor, in his budget address, called for an independent forensic audit of the district’s budgeting practices. In the communication, the administration said that they were “deeply disappointed” in the mayor’s request. They said that the district, along with the city, already undergoes a yearly audit through independent auditors.
At the council meeting, Walcott told the council that she felt the yearly audit was thorough, and that, to her knowledge, there had been no discovery of any problems with the district’s finances.
But Council Member Linda Salafia pointed out that a forensic audit was different from the annual city audit the district undergoes.
“It doesn’t look at if you should have bought the item in the first place. It doesn’t look to see if you should have signed that contract in the first place. We need to look at all of those kinds of things,” she said.
In his budget address, Florsheim said he “could not and will not” support an increase to the Board of Education’s budget until it was “reworked.” Vazquez-Matos told the council on Tuesday that a budget without any increase would put at risk extracurricular activities, sports programs, social-emotional supports and would possibly lead to staff layoffs.
Florsheim told CT Examiner that he didn’t anticipate approval of a six percent increase, but also didn’t anticipate flat-funding the budget.
“None of us wants to see that. The council doesn’t want to see that. I don’t want to see that. There are needs that need to be met … including, and especially in those same classroom environments that I mentioned being so concerned about,” said Florsheim.