MANCHESTER — The Board of School Committee on Monday both praised and pointedly questioned the $160 million district budget proposed by Superintendent Debra Livingston.
Much of the discussion concerned the budget's allocation of $742,000 to hire more assistant principals, while reducing the overall salary line for teachers and other employees by $128,800.
Livingston, who is presenting her first budget as the city's superintendent, maintained that the spending plan would allow the district to meet minimum standards for class sizes, while also launching new initiatives, such as full-day kindergarten and improvements at the Manchester School of Technology.
The $160 million budget for the 2014-2015 school year is $3.3 million higher than last year's, the maximum increase allowable under the tax cap. The city and school budgets for next year can increase by no more than 2.13 percent, a cap based on the rate of inflation.
The budget presentation on Monday was markedly different than in past years. Since the tax cap went into effect three years ago, the superintendent, at the direction of the school board, has presented two or more budgets: one to comply with the tax cap and an alternative budget designed to meet the needs of the district, despite the cap.
Mayor Ted Gatsas collaborated with Livingston on the current budget, and he defended the proposal during Monday's meeting. "I want to commend the administration. The budget brought forward is thoughtful," Gatsas said.
More assistant principals
The budget proposes $742,000 to hire more assistant principals, one at each of the three high schools and 2.5 to split their time at the five elementary schools.
School board members focused the greatest scrutiny on the additional $742,000 proposed for principals.
"Under this budget you want to spend more on principals than on teachers in the classrooms," Ward 3 board member Chris Stewart said.
"You weren't able to give an answer on state standards (on class sizes). It does give me significant heartburn."
Stewart was referring to the administration's plan to lower class sizes in line with state standards. The superintendent said that the budget would bring class sizes within the standards of 30 students per teacher for most classes, but she wouldn't be able say for certain what the staffing needs will be until later in the spring.
Under state standards, schools are supposed to have one principal for every 500 students, a guideline the district meets.
Assistant Superintendent David Ryan said hiring the additional assistant principals was a directive from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which accredits city schools."I think it's unrealistic to expect any high school to grow, if the chief instructional leader of a school is having to administer detention ... in these very large complex urban high schools," Ryan said.Ryan said the NEASC is conducting a review of principal staffing levels at the request of the district's principals.
Veteran teachers retired
The budget projects a $128,800 reduction in the salary line for teachers and other employees, with an associated reduction in benefits of $82,000. At the same time, it projects a $881,000 increase in health insurance costs.Livingston said the reduction in the salary line was possible because of the retirement of veteran employees.
"We had a number of retirements of people at the top of the scale, and have been able to replace them with first- and second-year teachers," Livingston said.
The staffing estimates are based on the assumption that no agreement is reached with the city teachers union, which is currently working without a contract. The arrangement freezes generous health plans in place, but also prevents any increases in salaries.
The budget also proposes $145,000 to hire staff for full-day kindergarten. Livingston said the money would save money in the long term.
Near the end of the budget discussion, Ward 9 board member Art Beaudry made a proposal to close Manchester High School West, a move he said could free up $1.9 million in the district budget.A motion was made to reject the idea, which was approved overwhelmingly, with three abstentions, including from Beaudry himself.
A public hearing on the school budget will be held Thursday at 7:30 p.m. At City Hall.
Mayor Ted Gatsas will making his presentation for the city and district budgets on Monday.