Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 24, 2014

School, town officials spar over budget process

By Bill Kirk

---- — The School Committee agreed to shave $1.2 million off its budget request last week, but not before a lively argument broke out among town and school officials over who was responsible for it.

The budget trimming, coming mostly at the expense of about 50 instructional assistants, was made at the behest of the town manager, who sought to remove $800,000 from the School Committee’s $72.1 million budget request, and the selectmen, who sought a $400,000 reduction.

“This year has been highly atypical,” School Committee Chairwoman Annie Gilbert. “The fact that the selectmen voted to reduce our budget allocation by $400,000 was a surprise. Usually, we have discussions about it. This year, there were no discussions with the School Committee.”

Newly elected School Committee member Joel Blumstein took an even harsher tone, calling the system “flawed.”

“I’m very surprised by the process, from beginning to end, that’s led us to where we are,” he said. “The town manager and School Committee develop separate budgets on separate tracks and decisions are made without collaboration or consultation or understanding the impacts.”

Selectmen and Finance Committee members, however, shot back that the School Committee is at least partly responsible for the problem.

“The actual school budget is almost $2 million more than last year,” recently elected Selectman Mary O’Donoghue said. “How can you talk about cuts?”

Blumstein responded: “You took a vote without knowing the impact of the cut.”

Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf and other committee members said that the School Committee didn’t even provide its final budget figures until late in the process, making it difficult to know what was being presented.

“It’s important to have information,” he said. “Without information, it’s tough. Transparency has been a challenge. Without transparency you can’t have a dialogue.”

Finance Committee member Joanne Marden agreed.

“We didn’t have a school budget until two days before our budget meeting on the School Department,” she said. “We all have to take responsibility for looking at what comes out when it comes out.”

Several School Committee members lamented the fact that the town manager held a meeting to discuss local aid and free cash without inviting everyone.

Gilbert noted, “In the past, the School Committee has been included in those discussions. I guess that’s no longer the case.”

The School Committee in early March proposed a budget of $72.1 million, an increase of about 4 percent over last year’s budget. Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski recommended a budget of $71.3 million — a reduction of about $881,000.

Selectmen then sought to trim an additional $400,000 from the school budget request, bringing the total request to $70.9 million — which is still a $2 million increase over the current year’s spending plan.