Last year when the Howell Public Schools Board of Education adopted its budget for the district one of the highlights for the members was the fact that they were able to cut their spending and provide some tax relief for the resident.
At Wednesday's meeting a proposal to at least keep the budget flat this year was met with some resistance with many questions yet to be answered in terms of goals for the future and financing. With two members set to be replaced in January following the November elections there were also questions about whether budgetary issues should wait until the new board is seated.
While board member Jeanette Smith was the first to suggest the goal of a flat budget, fellow board member Stephen M. Levine was the first to question making such a decision so early in the process.
Levine said he wanted more information about what impact setting such a goal would have on the overall outcome of the budget adoption in terms of the education of students in the district. Saying he was not against a flat budget Levine said he "would prefer to operate on a basis of increased knowledge and information."
Board Secretary and district Business Administrator Ron Sanasac said questions to be answered before knowing what the budget will look like. Among them are a contract with the district's teachers that has not yet been ratified by the union and what impact the recent storms will have on state aid the schools will receive.
Before to the storms Sanasac said the district's financial picture was "looking pretty good," and that the district remains in "good financial health right now." Depending on what comes from the contract negotiations and from Trenton, he said, "We could weather some of those storms right now."
That budget, he said could change depending on the priorities the district looks to tackle in the upcoming year. Over the past year the district has formed a technology task force which has looked at ways to update the aging equipment currently being used in the schools.
Even with questions looming over the process Al Miller said he believed the board should still look to keep the budget flat for the upcoming year. "I don't see a problem with setting a goal for a flat budget," he said. "As departments come in and changes need to be made they're going to have to be made."
Board Vice President Suzanne Brennan agreed that the decision was a guide for the process but not "set in stone," as the budget picture develops. She said if the board gave the guidelines to the department heads to aim for a flat budget it would help make things go smoother, "Rather than go with everything that they need or think that they need and then work backwards." She added, "I think it's easier to add than take away."
Saying she supported the flat budget Brennan added, "Can things change, absolutely. That does not mean it's set in stone but I think it's something worthy of considering."
Superintendent Enid Golden said she was concerned adopting a goal of a flat budget would "lock in," the district to following a course of action before having all the facts of what they were dealing with. "We may be going in a direction that we don't want to lock in the budget at this point and then have a resistance to change it," she said.
For his part Board President Tim O'Brien said he understood that changes may have to be made to the goal as the picture becomes clearer but also supported the idea of the flat budget. "We also have to be cognizant that we're in a situation right now where the economy is in a recession and our community is already paying a higher percentage," he said.
Mary Cerretani said that while finances are an important part of the budget process there are other things to keep in mind as well. "I think sometimes we have to look at the fact of how many buildings we have because we have so many students in our buildings that require us to have many more things," she said.
With many special needs students in the district as well as children ranging from preschool to middle school in the system Cerretani said those areas require funding to run successfully.
Levine agreed saying he believed the decisions the board makes today will have a long ranging affect on the students in the future. "I don't think we can look at money. I think we need to look at what our money is purchasing in terms of the quality of education that we are providing to our children," he said. "I see expenditures when it comes to education being a major part of our national defense." He added, "The youngsters we're educating today are the future of our country."
Cerretani said she had supported the flat budget last year but said then they knew more about what the district's financial situation and needs were unlike where they were Wednesday night. "I don't know if we are there tonight," she said adding, "I totally agree going with a flat budget would be fabulous."
Smith said finances, especially in these economic times, are still important to consider. "We also have to really consider our community that will be funding the education we're providing," she said. In her neighborhood alone Smith said there are vacant properties and houses for sale and in foreclosure. "Our community is telling us that they are at their breaking point. If we go in with a goal for a flat budget that will assure them that we're doing the best we can for them."
O'Brien said there was a difference between the district spending a lot of money on the students as opposed to spending efficiently. "The outcomes come from the impact of the quality of teachers and the students that are readily engaged and support from a family that is always backing them up," he said. "Money is important because it funds people that matter in the classroom."
Setting the guidelines, O'Brien said did not lock the board into a final decision. He also said he believed the administration could work with the board to get the best results for the students. "If we as a policy body can give them guidance I'm more than confident that they're able to come up with a plan that will meet the needs of our students," he said.
O'Brien also added that as the process continues if the administration believes they need more money than a flat budget would allow they would be able to make that case to the board.
Of the three board seats that were up for election in November only O'Brien kept his seat while Patrick Dowling was voted out and Joseph Moscato opted not to run for another term.
One of the most outspoken board members against the proposed guideline was finance committee chairman John Van Noy. Believing the board should wait until the new members are seated and they have more information, Van Noy said he did not believe the guideline would be helpful in the process. "Simply doing a rah rah look at us we want to have a flat budget so the public can think we're doing this, I would be concerned," he said.
Van Noy said he believed the budget process last year "became political," and wanted to avoid that this time. "I would like to give the new members the respect that they deserve being elected to do a job for three years and that they be able to participate in the goals."
He added that he believed it was important to wait until all the data had been collected before making any decisions on guidance for the budget. "I would thoroughly object to making any implication, public or otherwise, that we do have relevant data to make this definition of a goal meaningful. We simply don't know."
O'Brien said he did not believe that a discussion item by a board member should be qualified as "rah rah," and that the discussions centered "not around a policy statement," but rather, "parameters by which we set policy." He added, "Each board member deserves respect to have their opinions taken seriously,"
Van Noy said his comments were not meant to take away from Smith's statement or an attack on her as a fellow member but merely his opinion.
Brennan said like Smith she believed members of the board knew people who had been directly affected by the economy making their decisions that much more important. "I think we as a board need to understand the plight of the community," she said.
She also added that she did not believe their discussions should be "political," as Van Noy had suggested. "It's simply each of us expressing our opinion of what we're here to do," she said.
Smith also objected to the suggestion that the board should wait until the new members are seated before tackling the budget. With only one meeting left on the calendar before January she said she believed the board should continue its work that it had started this year.
One change the board did agree to before voting was a suggested change by Moscato that the board adopt a guideline and not a goal. "Guideline isn't set in stone like a goal," he said. "If that is a goal we should meet that goal. If we can't meet it to me it's like you failed to meet your goal."
The vote passed by a narrow margin with Cerretani, Dowling, Levine and Van Noy voting against adoption.
The next meeting of the board is scheduled for Dec. 12 which will mark the last meeting before Chuck Welsh and Jeanne DePompo take their seats at the dais.