2009-02-12 / Front Page

Unknowns hinder school budget

By Eileen M. Daly

One of the most significant challenges facing the Jamestown School Committee this budget year concerns what Superintendent Marcia Lukon refers to as "the unknowns."

These include the governor's budget proposals, the level of federal aid that may become available under President Barack Obama and the impact of cost-saving tactics such as the proposed state bussharing program.

The Feb. 5 school committee meeting was once again well attended with Town Council members Barbara Szepatowski and Michael G. White present, along with a number of local teachers. School committee members thanked the teachers and town council members for their attendance and support. The meeting began with Lukon's response to the committee's request from a previous meeting that the administration prepare a "broad brush" priority list of reductions to be made in the event of cuts in state aid.

"I have met numerous times with the administrative team to discuss what we would need to do if state aid was cut completely," Lukon said. "However, there are so many unknowns at this time including the governor's proposals and the potential aid from President Obama that we would prefer to wait to make the plan known to the school committee. There is nothing good on the list and everything we could possibly cut would result in a reduction of services for our kids."

School Committee Chairperson Cathy Kaiser pressed for clarifi- cation. "Should we have to make these cuts, though, we do have a plan of reduction down 25 percent without an added taxpayer burden, correct?"

"We presented a level services budget," Lukon responded, "so any cuts will have to come from there. I don't want to give the impression that any of these cuts are okay to make."

Committee members again praised Lukon for presenting a fiscally conservative budget and acknowledged the challenge of preparing a budget without knowing the exact numbers. Committee member B.J. Whitehouse referred to the process as, "a big question mark," while Chairperson Kaiser referred to it as "a stab in the dark." Everyone, however, acknowledged that, regardless of the challenges involved, a budget of some kind must be prepared within the next several weeks for presentation to the town council. With that in mind, the committee proceeded to review the proposed level services budget.

With the exception of committee member William "Bucky" Brennan, committee members challenged few of the outlined services. Committee member Julie Kallfelz praised the proposed budget as "very responsible and very thoughtful," while Whitehouse said he felt it was silly to challenge small dollar items.

Although Brennan agreed with how the budget was prepared and said that he and the rest of the committee "fully support the staff and the children," he nonetheless took a hard look at everything from how proposed enrollment numbers were devised to challenging the need for positions such as a student assistance counselor in tough financial times. "I've talked about this for several years in a row. I really don't see any statistics that support the effectiveness of this program or any evidence that justifi es the $30,000 cost," Brennan said in reference to the student assistance counselor position.

Chairperson Kaiser responded, "I don't think you have support for that cut, but if we have to look at it then we will look at it."

Town Council member Szepatowski commented. "I'd like to suggest that Laura Hosley be asked to attend the next meeting to explain the SALT survey results," Szepatowski said. Hosley is the Jamestown Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force coordinator.

Brennan said that it would be beneficial to see reports from the student assistance counselor. "It wouldn't be a bad thing for the student assistance counselor to submit reports to the school committee," Brennan said. "A somewhat detailed report, without breaching confidentiality, would be helpful."

Whitehouse agreed that information is always good, but cautioned against forcing any staff member to justify their existence.

Other items Brennan questioned included tuition costs, English language learning costs, special education busing costs, insurance and workmen's compensation costs as well as retiree benefits.

Finally, both Kaiser and Kallfelz commented on the alarming rise in legal and settlement costs.

The school committee will continue its review of the budget at their next meeting tonight, Thursday, Feb. 12, and will vote on the budget at that meeting or at the Thursday, Feb. 26, business meeting.

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