Tuesday night Watertown School officials made their case for the major increase in their school budget to the Town Council, but Councilors had concerns and questions about the schools’ request.
After making some adjustments to the request, the Watertown Public School asked for a $5.8 million in Fiscal 2015 over the current year, or just under a 16 percent hike. On April 29 when Town Manager Michael Driscoll first presented the budget their figure was $6.1 million or 16.87 percent more than Fiscal 2014. This is the amount of money needed to return the Watertown Schools to the point where they were before the Recession sapped the schools of funding, said Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald.
On Tuesday, Driscoll again presented his proposed budget which would give an increase of the town appropriation of $2.2 million or 6.18 percent. There were also one-time increases of $210,000 in Fiscal 2014 and $750,000 in Fiscal 2015 for to help the schools purchase goods and services. The total spending, Driscoll said, is 8.8 percent over Fiscal 2014.
Fitzgerald said after covering increases in mandated programs such as special education and English as a Second Language, the schools will have $289,000 left from the Town Manager’s request.
School officials will discuss how to use the town appropriation at a School Committee meeting Thursday night at 6 p.m. in the Watertown High School Lecture Hall.
Councilors told the school officials that they support the schools and want to make them the best they can. Most also said they were confused by the numbers presented and had a hard time understanding exactly how the money was spent this year and where the increased money would go in Fiscal 2015.
Councilor Aaron Dushku said he remembered growing up going to a church in Belmont where the few Watertown children in his Sunday school class were made fun of and called “Wat Rats.” He still remembers that and said he does not want his kids to feel inferior for living in town.
“I don’t want my children to get the idea that they are not getting the same education as other area communities,” Dushku said.
At the same time Dushku said he had a hard time understanding the school’s budget presentation. He asked if school officials could lay out how they would use any additional dollars the Council could provide the schools.
“Let us know, we will be able to add teachers for the (large) fifth grade moving up (for instance),” Dushku said. “We can find more money, I know we can.”
Town Council Vice President Steve Corbett said he wants excellent schools but added the budget request is “not at all realistic.”
He worries that the Watertown Public Schools have one of the highest per pupil spending in the area, but still need more money. He supported the proposal by Driscoll to have a third-party audit of the school budget.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she could not make an informed decision on the school budget with the information provided.
“I rely on the School Committee to give all the information I need to make a wise decision,” Kounelis said. “I don’t have it and I don’t know what I’m voting for.”
School Committee member John Portz said the school budget was approached in a different way this year. Instead of only focusing on the Town Appropriation, they also included fees, grants and revolving funds that do not go directly into the school operating budget.
Corbett said balancing school budget into the future is difficult because of the teacher contracts the School Committee approved.
“The teacher contract is clearly not sustainable and it creates inequity with other labor groups in town,” Corbett said.
Not all the Councilors agreed that the presentation was unclear. Councilor Tony Palomba praised school officials for their work and their presentation.
Councilors said they hope to make the increase a reality but it won’t happen now.
“It can’t happen all in one year,” said Councilor Susan Falkoff. “We have Proposition 2 1/2 which we need to work with. We will do what we can. If we can find the money we will.”
Town Council President Mark Sideris said he believes the schools have laid out a plan to bring the Watertown Schools to where they should be.
“It would be great to say let’s give the schools $6 million, but we can’t fix it in one year,” Sideris said. “We need to work together, not point fingers.”