EAST LONGMEADOW — A joint meeting between the East Longmeadow Town Council and the School Committee on Jan. 23 became a debate about the purpose and power of the Finance Oversight Committee.

The town charter requires that the School Committee and the Town Council meet each year as part of the budget process. Town Manager Tom Christensen said the town is in “level one” of the budget process and currently working with an assumption of level services with a 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment for non-union employees. While he said the “trend” does not look good to add positions this fiscal year, that could be explored during the “level two” budget talks.

School Committee Chair Gregory Thompson told the council that the School Committee needs certain items for the fiscal year ahead but is respectful of the level services guideline. He asked if the School Committee should expect to have to cut positions in FY25. He explained that negotiations with the teachers union were just beginning, and that information would be helpful. Town Council President Ralph Page told Thompson to move forward by giving town leadership a “realistic budget.” If more money is needed in the future the committee can come back to the council.

Thompson called out cuts recommended by the Finance Oversight Committee last year, which he described as “arbitrary” because no other department was singled out for cuts and he did not want to be blindsided again. He said that the committee wants to work “holistically” with the town to create a budget that reflects the needs and wants of the town. “Let’s do this together,” Thompson said.

Page asked Thompson about the School Department using the remaining Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds that the federal government distributed to help with COVID-19-era expenses. ESSER funds must be allocated by Sept. 30 of this year. Thompson explained that the department was intentional in not using the funds to pay for recurring costs, such as salaries, and therefore avoiding a financial cliff when ESSER ends. However, the funding had been used for some paraprofessionals and custodial staff. Three paraprofessionals paid for with ESSER funds were transferred to the operational budget last year. The committee does not plan to transfer the remaining three paraprofessionals funded through ESSER to the budget.

“We can’t submit a 6% budget [increase] again,” Christensen said. Last year, the School Department’s initial budget request was close to 6%, but an unexpectedly large Chapter 70 state aid increase of $2 million allowed the committee to lower it to a 3.7% increase.

Thompson brought the conversation back to the Finance Oversight Committee and asked how it calculates the budget it recommends to the council. Director of Municipal finance Kim Collins told him, “We’re totally driven by excess levy.” Without knowing the entirety of department requests, she said she could not provide the committee with a figure or the number of cuts that may be needed.

Thompson responded that the Finance Oversight Committee is not an elected body, but instead is appointed each year by the Town Council president and its priorities do not necessarily reflect those of town residents.

Thompson again pushed back against the position of the Finance Oversight Committee in the budget process. Town Council member Jonathan Torcia said the subcommittee makes recommendations about the budget to the Town Council, which has the final say.

School Committee member Sarah Truoiolo brought up a Sept. 15, 2023, Town Council meeting at which former members of the Finance Oversight Committee Christine Saulnier, James Broderick and Dawn Starks were consulted about the bond length for the new high school project. At that meeting, she recalled one of them saying that if the high school pushed the town’s tax rate over $25 per $1,000 of property value, the School Department budget would need to be cut.

“It doesn’t seem that we’re going into this negotiation in good faith because those comments have already been made,” Truoiolo said.

Torcia assured the School Committee members present that layoffs are the last option.

“It always has to be a compromise. We’re all trying to fight for the children,” Torcia said. “I would not want to cut a single position, and if we got to that point, we’d be looking at the budget as a whole,” rather than cutting from the schools alone.

Town Council member Connor O’Shea said he also disagreed with the role of the Finance Oversight Committee in the process and that he would not recommend cuts to the school budget. Similarly, Town Council member Matthew Boucher said the cuts to the schools last year were “arbitrary.” While he did not want to see a school department budget much higher than level services, he said he was against cuts.

Of the Finance Oversight Committee, Town Council member Marilyn Richards said, “It never hurts” to have a second set of eyes, especially when dealing with budgets of such magnitude. She speculated that as the budget process has become streamlined, the subcommittee may not be needed in the future.

O’Shea asked about using the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s Accelerated Repair Program for the roof at Mapleshade School, which has needed replacement for several years. The program would reimburse East Longmeadow Public Schools for a portion of the project costs. Thompson said it has been considered but is a matter of whether the town plans to keep the school in that building for the next 25 years, a program requirement. Superintendent Gordon Smith said the School Department would need to present a statement of interest to the MSBA by March to make it into this cycle of funding.

O’Shea suggested the Town Council and the School Committee meet jointly again further into the budget season. Thompson said the committee would welcome that and added, “We’re all in this together.”

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