FOR THE SECOND weekend in a row, school committee members are feeling pressure to bring back laid off teachers by using the district's trust funds.
On June 30, there will be about $3.8 million in funds set aside for unexpected costs in special education, health care, building maintenance and other costs for next fiscal year. The Board of School Committee could also use a portion to restore vacant positions. The board voted against using these one-time funds this winter and didn't even discuss the issue last week, largely because the will to use trust money wasn't there, said committee Vice Chairman Dave Gelinas.
When the board meets on Wednesday to decide how to allocate the $152 million budget it was handed by the aldermen, expect the issue to come up. But don't be surprised if a motion to use some of the money leaves the board deadlocked.
Committeewoman Kathy Staub, who had previously voted against using the trusts, said last week she wanted to have the discussion again, though she's not sure yet how she would vote.
“The money that goes in there comes out of people's tax money. If we don't spend it at all, we're hoarding the people's tax dollars,” said Staub. “I don't like leaving money in the expendable trust when it can be used for programs or for tax relief.”
Committeewoman Sarah Ambrogi is also considering changing her vote and could opt for using up to half of the trust fund money to save jobs.
“Hopefully, we can use the money we have to restore programs where we can. So many of these programs are key features of what we offer,” said Ambrogi, referring to music and foreign language classes now on the chopping block.
While she is mindful of the argument that this one-time money would have to be made up next year, Ambrogi said, the threat of large class sizes and lost programs is troubling, as well.
Committeeman Chris Stewart, who still does not support using trust fund money, is just looking to wrap up the budget on Wednesday.
“I would like to see Dr. (Thomas) Brennan bring forward a list of what his recommendations are on how to spend that money, and the board should work off of that,” said Stewart.
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WHAT COULD FURTHER complicate the trust fund debate is the spike in health care costs that's draining the district's health care reserves. A month ago, school officials projected about $5 million would be left in the funds come June 30. But Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis told the board last week health care cost projections show there will be about $502,000 in claims charged to the district each week until the end of June. That will leave about $3.8 million in the funds for unexpected costs next year — including higher than expected health care claims — before any money is allocated to saving jobs.
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MAYOR TED GATSAS wants the record to be clear; He did not have a mai tai while vacationing in Aruba in February.
The matter was raised during a verbal tussle between Gatsas and Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur, who has twice found himself cut short by the mayor gaveling for a recess.
Last week's row started with a statement from Gatsas. After the vote to use $2 million of the city's surplus to fund the School Department, Gatsas assured the aldermen he would regularly remind them of their vote, especially if it led to more teacher layoffs next budget cycle.
Nothing makes the aldermen cringe quicker than a reminder from Gatsas about an unfortunate past vote, no matter how distant in the city's history. Whether it was the time the aldermen gave some money to the schools for paint and the district shifted the funds to salaries, or the time certain aldermen held up a vote to have another two weeks to review a contract, the mayor is committed to ensuring they never forget.
A few aldermen occasionally fire back at these reminders, but none quite like Levasseur.
The alderman at-large, who shifted his position on a budget compromise proposed by Alderman Joyce Craig, reminded Gatsas that he, too, had walked back on positions before. After opposing restoring four firefighter jobs this winter, Gatsas announced from Aruba “after a couple mai tais” he would bring back all nine laid off firefighters, Levasseur said.
That's when Gatsas reached his breaking point.
“What I took exception to was his comment about the mai tai,” said Gatsas. “He doesn't like the fact I'm going to remind him during the course of the year something he did with one-time money was wrong.”
Levasseur said on Wednesday he didn't mean to insinuate the mayor was tipsy when he made the call; Levasseur was simply noting that sipping exotic cocktails is what people do on vacation in the Caribbean.
“I'm sorry you went to Aruba and didn't have a mai tai,” said Levasseur.
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THE ALDERMEN HAVE long criticized the school board for a lack of long-term planning, something school board members have acknowledged as being a problem at times, though not entirely their fault.
New high-speed Internet hook-ups and wireless options at schools, building repairs, teacher training and collaboration have all been put on the district's wish list, but the board has been flustered as to how to get these done with essentially no cash.
Last week, the school board created a new long-term planning committee to come up with a plan members can point to when putting together the budget next year.
Kathy Staub, who came up with the idea, will serve as committee chairman. Members are Sarah Ambrogi, Erika Connors, Chris Stewart and John Avard.
The committee's report to the full board is due in December.
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SCHOOL AND CITY OFFICIALS are still hoping for cost-saving discussions with school unions, but Superintendent Brennan said there has been little progress in talks so far. Paraprofessionals turned down a concessions deal recently, and there have been no meetings with teachers and school officials since the contract vote. Come this summer, any talks will most likely focus on negotiating a replacement contract for the one set to expire in 2013.
“I'm hoping we can negotiate before next year; we still have an opportunity to save an awful lot of positions,” said Gatsas.
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ALDERMAN PHIL GREAZZO has been a strong advocate for Manchester and the taxpayers of the state, U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta said in an endorsement released last week. Greazzo is currently a state representative and alderman running for state Senate in District 20, representing Wards 3, 4, 10, 11 and Goffstown.
“As mayor of Manchester, I saw firsthand Phil's dedication to fiscal responsibility in our joint efforts to help instate a spending cap in the state's largest city,” Guinta said. “His hard work since then to protect these efforts has not gone unnoticed.”
Read Beth LaMontagne Hall's coverage of Manchester City Hall in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.