Saugus school budget scrutiny becomes heated

SAUGUS – The Finance Committee on Wednesday scoured the proposed $26.6 million School Department budget for fiscal 2012, leading to heated exchanges among committee members, school officials and Town Meeting members in the audience.The committee learned from the start of the public hearing of a $410,000 imbalance in paying for vocational school expenses and later of a need for more than $1 million to avoid layoffs of school personnel.During the hearing at the Roby School Administration Building, Town Manager Andrew Bisignani said the $410,000 vocational school expense could prove less as the process evolves. “This is a preliminary number. It could be less,” he said, explaining Saugus is among a group of communities negotiating with the Northeast Vocational school.Superintendent Richard Langlois said accomplishments over the past year include the Belmonte School officially being classified a middle school with appropriate curriculum and MCAS scores in the district increasing so that Saugus moved from Level 3 to Level 2, a significant improvement, he said.The state also found the district compliant in civil rights, special education and English as a Second Language, he said. As a participant in the Race to the Top initiative, Saugus will receive $252,000 in supplementary funds for the next four years, he said.Langlois noted the district has applied for staff development funding.According to the superintendent, the fiscal 2011 school budget was $25 million. Since then, several fixed costs have increased, he said, citing $1 million in pending personnel and labor contract expenses, $400,000 in special education out-of-district tuition, $50,000 in regular education out-of-district tuition and $100,000 in special education extended-year programs.The increases, based on maintaining the same level of services as the previous year, total $1.6 million, pushing the proposed school budget for fiscal 2012 to $26.6 million.Langlois also listed critical education needs for fiscal 2010, such as a special education teacher at the Veterans school for $50,000; two regular education teachers at the Veterans school for $100,000; and an early-childhood education teacher at the Ballard school for $50,000. Coupled with these recommendations are an administrative clerk for $30,000 and a K-12 curriculum director for $100,000.These “critical needs” would add another $655,000 to the $26.6 million, bringing the total to $27.2 million.The superintendent warned of unavoidable cuts to positions and programs if the school budget is funded at the same amount as last year. About 20-25 positions would be lost, he said. Student to teacher ratios would increase along with class sizes and some busing of students would likely occur, he said. An increase in athletic fees would also implemented.If the “lion’s share” of revenue from the town’s proposed one-time property tax assessment of $1.2 million goes to the School Department, it would save staff jobs, Langlois said.Acting Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth DePatto said given the economic climate, the public isn’t likely to embrace an increased school budget to pay for raises or new contracts.Langlois said teachers and therapists are given raises as they earn state-mandated certifications.Finance Committee member George DeDomenico said it the us-against-them town versus school attitude must cease. “The public sees it as one budget, not as town and school sides,” he said, adding the town has an obligation to first pay its outstanding $1.2 million snow and ice removal costs from last winter.”It’s supposed to be collaborative. I don’t feel the collaboration,” Langlois said.DePatto reminded the committee and the audience should the one-time property tax assessment fail, the schools will not receive money and the overtime accounts for police, fire and dispatchers will be stripped.As the give-and-take became more heated, School Committee member Arthur Grabowski defended the teachers’ salaries, noting some therapists earn

More Stories In News