Date: 3/28/2013 By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW — After promising a battle for funding on the Town Meeting floor, School Committee Chair Michael Clark went on the offensive early.
Shortly after sending a written statement criticizing the Select Board's decision not to increase its original budget number for the schools to Reminder Publications, Clark sent an email to Select Board Chair Paul Santaniello, which was copied to the rest of the board, the School Committee and the media that drew multiple responses from board members.
In question is a difference of $726,000 between the School Committee's proposed budget and the Select Board's budget, which was approved at its March 18 meeting, according to Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk. At the beginning of the budgeting process, the Select Board mandated that all departments should submit budget requests with a 0 percent increase and any increases would have to be justified.
Clark addressed comments made by members of the Select Board regarding a perceived unwillingness on the part of the School Committee to negotiate with the board.
"Those comments are blatantly untrue and do not reflect the good faith proposals made by me and other members of the School Committee directly to members of the Select Board," he said in the email. "As of [March 14], I had personally conveyed to every member of the Select Board that we would be willing to propose to the full committee a reduction of $200,000 from our FY14 [fiscal year 2014] approved budget, resulting in a total bottom line increase of $404,704.14."
Clark added that School Committee member James Desrochers and Select Board Vice Chair Mark Gold had a conversation during which a similar message was conveyed to him.
The School Committee has maintained the position that without raising the budget number, the School Department may have to layoff up to 15 employees.
"As I indicated to you over the phone, a $200,000 reduction is the most we are able to make without a serious impact on staffing levels or the delivery of classroom education," he said.
Clark's letter drew the public ire of three members of the board, including Santaniello and Gold, who both rebuked Clark for involving the media in the formal correspondence between the School Committee and the Select Board.
Santaniello said Clark's letter "illustrates the breakdown in the budget process."
"In my opinion, copying the media, when you could have [addressed] this directly with members of the Board that you may disagree with, seems counterproductive to bringing folks together," he said.
Gold replied that he would attempt to speak directly with Clark regarding his concerns, but added, "your communications to a broad group of individuals — including the press — that is not entirely correct cannot go without response."
Santaniello, Gold and Selectman Mark Barowsky also stated in their separate email responses that while Clark had expressed his opinion regarding the $200,000 reduction, those conversations were informal and he, nor any other School Committee member, made an effort to appear before the Select Board at any meetings following the March 13 budget hearing.
Clark's communication with Gold "took the form of a comment made as the Select Board was exiting our March 13th meeting," he recalled.
"Such comments in the form of informal communications in passing, in my opinion, fall short of the demonstration of a 'willingness to participate in negotiations regarding the FY14 budget,' but rather gave the impression of 'this is our number' as opposed to 'how can we come to an agreement?'" Gold said. "Whereas Mr. Barowsky, Ms. [Marie] Angelides and I have each gone 'on the record' as offering an alternative to the budget, to my knowledge, the school committee has made no formal statement of a change to your proposed [FY14] budget."
Barowsky, who made the motion to approve the budget at the March 18 Select Board meeting, said he attempted to negotiate with Clark, but received no response.
"I believe that I did make you a counter proposal after our meeting on [March 13] and again when we spoke on the phone towards the end of last week," he said. "Not hearing from your committee as regards (sic) my proposal by the beginning of the [Select Board] meeting on the [March 18], I concluded that there was no interest. As a consequence, I proffered the motion on the budget for FY14."
Gold pointed out that any subsequent meetings after the budget forum were made possible because members of the Select Board reached out the School Committee and School Department.
"Moreover, it is important for the record to show that I my meeting [with] Mr. Desrochers was at my request, not the School Committee's. I have also been led to believe that the meeting that Paul Santaniello had with you and [Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Thomas] Mazza was at his request," he said.
"Because we are treading on some unchartered territory, there's no clear precedence for how the Select Board and School Committee should be working to reach a budget compromise, but there clearly has not been any public effort by the School Committee to formally reach out to the Select Board . to communicate any willingness by the School Committee to put forward an alternative budget proposal," he continued.
Gold also criticized the School Committee's assertion that the Select Board is cutting the School Department's budget, stating instead that it "should more accurately be stated as 'the Select Board has recommended to reduce your budget proposal for next year by $726,000.'"
Santaniello and Gold both stated they were still willing to negotiate with the School Committee, but expressed concerns based on the tone of Clark's email.
"While we may disagree with a number for the budget, there's still plenty of time between now and Town Meeting to continue to talk," Santaniello said. "Michael, you and I have worked to try to bridge some gaps, I feel your email was one of those that should have been written and then deleted, instead of being sent."
Gold added, "I continue to hope that there is a middle ground to this disagreement because of my strong belief that there will be no winners in a Town Meeting budget fight. However, if the statement in your attached email that 'a $200,000 reduction is the most we are able to make without a serious impact on staffing levels or the delivery of classroom education' represents the absolute limit of your willingness to modify your budget request, then perhaps there is no point in pursuing future discussions."