, Newburyport, MA

January 31, 2013

Mulqueen seeking ways to bridge Pentucket budget gap


---- — WEST NEWBURY — Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen and his business manager Michael Bergeron made the rounds this past month to the three towns of the Pentucket Regional School District in hopes of selling their plan for creating a “student-centered budgeting approach and world-class priorities.”

Mulqueen told the school board on Tuesday that the town-to-town budget presentation was “very successful.”

Still, Chairman Brian Page of the regional School Committee says tough choices lie ahead to make up a $500,000 gap in Mulqueen’s proposed $35.9 million spending plan for next year.

The discussion was part of a report Mulqueen made to the school board in which he outlined progress he’s made this month in three specific areas — budget, facilities and school security.

The draft budget represents a 2.5 percent increase over this year and Mulqueen has indicated he is philosophically opposed to seeking any further funding from the communities via a tax override to make up a shortfall in the district’s operating budget. Instead, his administrative team is seeking ways to reduce expenditures without cutting.

One possible option might be to privatize the district’s lunch program. Jill Eichhorst of West Newbury asked Bergeron to bring back to the committee a review of the food service program and any areas where savings might be found.

Mulqueen said he was grateful for those who participated in the weekly discussions and he felt his explanations for the administrative reorganization he is proposing to help bridge the budget gap were received “favorably.” Among the changes Mulqueen is recommending are the elimination of the assistant superintendent and Sweetsir Elementary School principal positions.

Groveland’s Joe D’Amore asked whether Mulqueen was able to sufficiently address concerns raised by some parents of students with disabilities that his proposed consolidation of the special education director and out of school placement coordinator positions would create a job that was too big for one person to handle effectively. For a department that handles the needs of the district’s most vulnerable kids, this is a real concern, these parents said.

The superintendent said he held an additional meeting with these parents at which he was able to better clarify his plan. He is now working on a job description for the new position. “And we’ll go from there,” he said.

Parent Joan Reynolds said yesterday that after meeting with Mulqueen, she felt reassured that he understands her concerns and is “actively gathering information from all sources” as he creates this new post. She anticipates that parents whose children are most likely to be affected by the change will be able to give Mulqueen additional input once he has the job description is in place.

“He came from a much larger school system where he made similar changes that were very successful,” Reynolds said, adding, “His goal is for the administration to work together as peers with teachers and have trust and respect for each other.”

Mulqueen told the school board he believes “the stage is set for the next step” in the budget process — figuring out how to close the remaining shortfall. He urged the committee to be creative in coming up with possible solutions. “It won’t be any one item that allows us to close that gap” while still addressing the goal of establishing “world-class priorities,” said the superintendent.

“The $500.000 shortfall is going to be tough,” said Page after the meeting. Although Mulqueen and Bergeron have been working on ways to bridge the gap, Page said his committee hasn’t yet scheduled a meeting to discuss it. A public hearing on the budget is slated for Feb. 5.

When it comes to upgrading some of the athletic facilities at the high school and middle school, there won’t be any “quick fix,” Mulqueen told the committee. At a meeting held at the Merrimac Public Library last week, a subcommittee charged with finding a way to improve the track, tennis courts and exterior bleachers met with officials from Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury to review three possible solutions offered by consultants, Gale Associates.

No option is being ruled out, but Mulqueen said the group “really began digging into which one makes the most sense.” Town Meeting voters funded up to $700,000 for the project last spring, but recent estimates for the job have run upward of $3 million.

The subcommittee has asked the consultants for feedback on which option lends itself best to being phased in over a period of time. The district does not plan to go back to taxpayers for additional funding. Instead, they will seek to raise the money through fundraisers, private donations and grants.

Also on Tuesday, Mulqueen announced that local police chiefs and school administrators have begun a series of planned meetings on school security. The goal is to “tune up” existing emergency plans already in place. All staff will eventually receive a quick reference guide for dealing with emergencies.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mulqueen said he is grateful for the “great collaboration” with local public safety officials. Their input is “having a direct impact on the district’s All Hazards Plan for mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery,” he said.