Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finance Committee Public Forum

On April 7 I attended a Finance Committee Public Forum about the FY10 budget in order to get a better understanding of the financial difficulties that our town is facing. I was pretty disappointed with the poor attendance for this forum. In addition to the Finance Committee members and Rob Aseltine representing the School Committee, there was a total of two town residents including myself in attendance.

While there was not a formal presentation or overview of the FY10 budget, a number of specific subjects were discussed that provided me with a clearer picture of the financial issues facing the town of Longmeadow.

Below are some highlights from this meeting…

  • One of the largest and fastest growing segments of the town budget is the money allocated to Special Education (SPED). According to Rob Aseltine, approximately $10 million out of a total FY2010 budget of ~ $52 million is spent on SPED services and these costs are escalating at a rate of ~ 8-10% year. This increase in SPED costs every year pretty much consumes the allowable 2½% increase in revenues from property taxes. For FY2010, increased property taxes (limited by Proposition 2½) amounted to ~ $1 million over FY2009 vs. $800,000 increase in SPED costs.
  • Mr. Aseltine summarized the status of the federal stimulus money that was recently announced by Governor Patrick (see Springfield Republican article). The town of Longmeadow will be receiving approximately $418,000 for use with SPED. According to Mr. Aseltine, 50% of this money must be used for SPED program enhancements while the other 50% could be used for direct SPED costs. According to the news article, 50% of this money was to be disbursed to the towns by the end of April and other 50% in the Fall 2009.
  • At this point in the meeting there was considerable debate led by Chair- Mark Barowsky suggesting that at least a portion of this federal grant be allocated to town services since a signficant portion of the SPED program is funded by money from the General Fund. Mr. Aseltine argued that a major portion of this money be “invested” to improve the efficiency of delivering SPED services through the implementation of a new program called “Response to Invention”. RTI is a method of academic intervention used in the United States designed to provide early, effective assistance to children who are having difficulty learning. The ultimate goal would be to at least significantly reduce the rate of change for delivering SPED services.
  • It is interesting to note that Robin Crosbie, Town Manager made a similar recommendation about the cost of SPED services in a LongmeadowBuzz commentary last year and was soundly rebuked by members of the Longmeadow School Committee.

    Here is an excerpt from her posting....
    "Now that I am on the topic of special education, let me say that residents, including parents of special needs students, have expressed concerns to me about the effectiveness and costs of the special education program. No one doubts or disputes the intentions and commitment of the school department to serving these students and families. But it may be time for the town to fund an outside managment study of the organization and effectiveness of pupil services. System assessments, whether of human or capital infrastructure, can be very helpful in seeing the big picture, developing specific remedies and recommending long-term planning and funding.” Robin Crosbie, Town Manager
  • Combine the increase in SPED costs + the significant reduction in state aid for Longmeadow for both the current FY2009 as well as FY2010, there is no room for salary increases for the town’s 650 employees without a significant reduction in town services. With most of the town employee labor contracts still being negotiated, there is considerable uncertainty about the level of town services for FY2010.

    There are no cost of living adjustments (school or town) included with the FY2010 budget to be voted on at next week’s Annual Town Meeting. With town employee and school department teachers contracts expiring in June and August, there is a potential increase in overall costs of $300,000 with every % increase in COLA.

    The Longmeadow School Committee is meeting next Monday night (April 27) in executive session to discuss “strategy with respect to collective bargaining”. Is it possible that all or a portion of the $417,000 in federal stimulus money will be used by the School Committee will be used to provide a COLA adjustments to the teacher’s contract?

I am hoping that the teachers and town employee unions will agree to a 0% COLA for at least one year. We need our town employees and teachers to help maintain the quality of life and education in our town. We also need to recognize the difficult financial circumstances that lie ahead and plan accordingly.

Everyone should plan to attend the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, April 28 at 7 PM in the Longmeadow HS gymnasium.

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