BYFIELD — The Triton School Committee debated Wednesday night whether it should approve a tentative budget proposed last week that members believed was affordable or approve a budget that at $34.5 million was more than $585,000 higher.
Based on recommendations by committee members to reduce unacceptable class sizes and restore positions cut from last week's proposed FY10 budget, Superintendent Sandra Halloran restored 10 positions this week — three at the high school, three at Newbury Elementary, two at Pine Grove and two at Salisbury Elementary. She also restored the assistant principal position she'd intended to cut at the middle school and Reading Recovery positions across the district.
The committee voted 7-1 to accept the interim budget, with member Frank Chiaravalotti dissenting based on his belief the district was building expectations it couldn't meet. Selectmen from Chiaravalotti's town of Newbury are finding the increased costs a little hard to swallow, and it was his feeling that if the towns can't afford to restore the positions, then the committee shouldn't approve an interim budget based on those assumptions.
Under the regional school formula, Rowley would pay no more in operating assessments than it did in FY09, and Salisbury would pay just $22,258 more, but Newbury's assessment would go up by $263,066. That's not including an assessment ranging from $125,000 for Rowley, $130,000 for Newbury and $147,000 for Salisbury to be paid in increased capital improvement costs in FY10.
Newbury Selectman Jennifer Wright said the numbers presented in last week's budget were going to be difficult to fund, and she was left surprised by the increase this week.
"I'm somewhat dumbfounded," Wright said. "I don't know where we can go from here. I really don't."
Wright explained that despite sitting in on meetings last week between Triton and town officials, nothing was mentioned of the increased numbers provided in the new tentative budget. And while as a parent she said she identified with the predicament of the schools, she couldn't see how the district could propose something the towns haven't seen.
"I don't understand how you could vote on a tentative budget without checking in with Newbury," Wright said.
Under the regional agreement that binds the three member towns, a formula based on population, growth and a variety of factors, is used to come up with assessment figures for the towns each year.
Two of the three towns have to agree to the assessments figured into Triton's district budget for it to pass. While Rowley would have the lowest rise in assessment figures for the proposed budget, partially due to the decreased revenues it's experiencing as a result of the economic downturn, Selectman Dave Petersen told the School Committee he sympathizes with the tough decisions they're facing. And he suggested given the dismal financial condition of the towns, Triton's teachers should seriously consider Halloran's request that they reopen their contract and give up their general raise of 3 percent approved for FY10.
"We all face a horrendously tough decision both at the School Committee level and us at the town level," Petersen said. "I think it's imperative that the teachers understand the situation here. We're talking about survival."
Though Petersen didn't quarrel with the 2 percent step raises that 40 percent of the teachers are eligible for under their union contract, he felt the general raise on top of that was a good place to start.
"Nobody's out to get the teachers, but we all need to collectively come up with solutions," he said. "I think the teachers need to know that whatever budget you vote on, you have to go to the town meeting and expect the citizens — who are losing their jobs, not getting their raise and getting pay cuts — to accept teachers not giving up their 3 percent pay raise. To expect the townspeople to fund the school budget (with 3 percent teacher raises), you're going to find contentious dealings at the town meeting. We're cutting town positions and level funding all sorts of things, and townspeople expect everyone to pull in a little bit."
Salisbury's Jerry Klima agreed with Petersen's position.
"We as the towns, the school, and all the population have to share," Klima said. "If there's going to be pain, it needs to be shared."
Klima further explained how the new revised budget proposed by Halloran and accepted in the interim by the School Committee Wednesday night raises Salisbury's share by nearly $200,000 at a time when the town's municipal budget was already in arrears by that much.
"As of earlier this week we were about $200,900 shy," Klima said. "Your change represents another $200,000, and we were already talking about layoffs."
Klima reasoned he'd rather see teachers give up their 3 percent raise, than have students lose out in the way of services or classroom teachers.
"We have to try to protect the children and educate them," he said. "They're the future."
After answering questions of School Committee members regarding a possible reduction of staff specializing in technology integration and areas of the budget that can possibly be trimmed down to decrease the burden on member towns, Halloran clarified her position is to do what is in the best interest of students.
"I know I'm responsible for presenting what's in the best interest of the school district and the students here," said Halloran, who submitted the new numbers at the urging of committee members. "That's my first priority. I want to have the least impact on the students in the district that we can possibly have. But when you're looking at these numbers, something has to go."
"No one wants to see 28 kids in a sixth-grade class in a classroom at Newbury Elementary," she added. "But we need to make some decisions, and we need to make them soon."
The next scheduled meeting of the school committee is a public hearing on Wednesday.