By Dustin Luca
---- — The budget battle between the town departments and school department reached a rare level this week with the town manager saying the schools had violated the town charter by not giving him a budget figure.
Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski presented his 183-page recommended budget to the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee on Monday. His recommended budget reflects a 3.32 percent increase for the School Committee — $2.2 million on top of last year’s $65.9 million figure — and a matching 3.32 percent increase for every other town department — totaling $1.1 million over last year’s appropriated $34.2 million budget.
In protest of Stapczynski’s recommendation for the school department, school leaders did not supply a school budget figure of their own.
In a one-page summary, the School Committee and Superintendent Marinel McGrath listed this year’s budget number as “See narrative below” and then wrote that they “are not providing the FY14 budget number to the town manager” for three reasons:
1) While the current budget process has worked in the past, the recent economic downturn “necessitates a new approach” as “it has become clear that revenues may never re-set to prior levels;”
2) Previous meetings between the Selectmen, Finance and School committees have “been thoughtfully engaged in discussions surrounding town priorities” with respect to both capital projects and collective bargaining obligations. “Currently, however, the town manager’s budget parameters do not reflect that discussion;”
3) After cutting 3.8 percent from their budget in expenses alone, an overall increase of 3.65 percent still would be needed to cover the costs of the schools’ contractual obligations. Stapczynski’s 3.32 percent increase makes it “impossible in FY14 to (a) maintain level services (b) meet compliance regulations and (c) make specific and sustainable investments in our clearly-defined Strategic Plan.”
When asked to speak to their decision at the dual-board meeting Monday, McGrath said she and the School Committee “actually do have a budget.”
“In that budget, we do know exactly what costs are for level services from FY13 to FY14, and we know what our budget would be if we were in fact to invest in our strategic plan,” she said. “As it said in the note, there are still some unanswered questions in our mind with respect to revenue sources.”
Finance Committee member Greg Serrao called for officials to foster transparency.
“We always work better as human beings in teams when there’s trust. Trust comes from transparency,” he said. “If there’s a gap, we should know what it is, and then work together to try to solve the gap.”
Paula Colby-Clements, School Committee chairwoman, said the aim of the School Committee and McGrath’s decision “is not to set up a dynamic that the boards are pitted against each other or go into Town Meeting with separate budgets.”
“Our intent is just to try to put together a budget number that’s thoughtful and responsible, and that we make budget numbers that are well-informed by what the real town revenue picture looks like,” Colby-Clements said.
Stapczynski included in his budget package section 15 of the town charter, which establishes the foundation for the town’s departments and bylaws.
The charter states all town officials and committees “shall annually, at the request of the town manager, submit to him in writing a detailed estimate of the appropriations required for the efficient and proper conduct of their respective departments and offices during the next fiscal year.”
The charter recognizes the Board of Selectmen as the policy-makers in town, and the town manager as the executor of those policies.
Given that, Stapczynski said the School Committee and McGrath are “technically” in violation of the town’s highest governing document.
“We fully expected to get (a budget figure) last week,” he said. “I was a bit surprised that we received no number, and the letter.”
Stapczynski said he wasn’t sure how he will respond, except to say, “I have to do some research before I start reacting.”
Disputing the notion that the school department has violated the town charter, Colby-Clements said “there’s nothing in the charter that has specific dates by which you have to present the budget number.”
McGrath also said the charter doesn’t specify a date, adding that Stapczynski and his team “accepted our narrative submission to the budget book which states our intent to present a thoughtful and responsible budget following further discussion with the tri-board.”
Tomorrow, Friday, Colby-Clements will meet with Selectmen Chairman Paul Salafia and Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf to go over the budget in closer detail and work out some of the issues at hand for future discussions.
While Salafia said he also feels the School Committee and McGrath have “technically” gone against the town’s charter, “I don’t think anybody is too upset over it.”
“I never got the feeling at all that they were fooling around and won’t give us a budget,” he said. “it’s just taking a little bit more time because they wanted us to try to rethink about the process on how we arrive at a budget.”
Salafia also gave what he felt was an appropriate deadline for the schools to deliver their numbers by, after which he said there would be clear issues in the “absurd scenario” that nothing is presented to the town: when the School Committee is slated to bring their budget to the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, March 6.
“Our budget process is continuing as usual with our meetings with the principals, with the School Committee budget subcommittee, with our Finance Committee liaisons, and updates to the town manager,” McGrath said. “We fully expect to present a budget at the tri-board meeting in March.”