Up Next: Dual concerns as school officials seek superintendent, budget answers

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When the Worcester Public Schools Finance and Operations Standing Committee meets Monday night, it will be looking at preliminary budget numbers that show the city school system requires an additional $11 million in funding just to keep existing services available to students, teachers and parents.

The current numbers are based on Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed 2017 state budget.

The schools Human Resources Department and administration are requesting another $14.5 million that they believe is needed to fill positions and fulfill other services.

According to school budget documents for fiscal 2017, a $3.5 million revenue increase is expected. In total, that leaves a potential $22 million budget gap heading into next fiscal year.

Now it’s up to administration and School Committee members to find ways to close the gap.

John Monfredo

Courtesy LinkedIn

John Monfredo

“Normally the governor’s budget is always doom and gloom until it goes to the House of Representatives,” School Committee member John Monfredo said. “It’s going to take until at least April before we get some real answers.”

Brian O’Connell, another longstanding school board member, is more concerned.

“We are looking at a potentially significant deficit for next year. It’s a huge gap between what city administration and human resources believes we need to fully service the schools for next year and what we’re actually going to receive.”

So how do they fix it?

Schools Chief Financial and Operations Officer Brian E. Allen said, “We will be looking to reallocate resources, make reductions if necessary, and defer some of the requests for additional staffing or materials. It’s really a combination of all of those things in order to present a balanced budget to the School Committee.

“We will be making all of those decisions with the superintendent and key stakeholders,” he added.

The budget will be submitted to the School Committee in mid-May, Allen said.

“In terms of how we get to a balanced budget, whether there’s reductions and cuts in the budget, whether we reallocated funding in one area to provide it another area, or whether we just defer spending, that’s the process we are going through now,” he said.

School Committee members hope state legislators will allow a cost-of-living increase that would lessen the projected gap by $10 million, leaving still about the same amount to account for, according to preliminary budget numbers.

Molly McCullough, a member of the Finance and Operations Standing Committee, said the School Committee is actively seeking assistance from local legislators.

“We’re working with state representatives and state senators to appeal to them as to what our needs are and what the school district is facing as far as a gap — what we really need and how we can work together to get some additional funding,” she said.

According to McCullough, legislators that are working with the School Committee include state Sen. Harriette L. Chandler and state Reps. James J. O’Day and John J. Mahoney.

The Finance and Operations Standing Committee plans to meet Monday evening, Feb. 29, to discuss the projected budget shortfalls. The full board is set to meet with state legislators April 1.

Brian O'Connell

Courtesy WPS

Brian O’Connell

O’Connell, a member of the superintendent search committee, said one of the questions that will be asked when the committee interviews applicants is how they would address a large budget deficit and what their priorities would be.

“One of the first things the new superintendent will be asked to do is to take a look at the budget, share their recommendations and tell us where they think changes need to be made,” O’Connell said.

Interim Superintendent Marco C. Rodrigues was unavailable to comment. However, he did predict last month that “the district may be faced with a significant financial gap due to our flat enrollment and zero inflation rate.”

South High Community School Principal Maureen F. Binienda, who also plans to apply for the superintendent’s position, said she saw the budget numbers when she met with the district office to request positions that South High would need for next year.

“The budget I was presented with was based on that request to get those positions for the following year. For example, I requested a social studies teacher. If I want to grow the curriculum and keep the class sizes down, I would need that teacher,” she said. “If they can’t meet the budget requests, then I have to find another way and be creative to meet those needs, or not offer the courses that I want to expand.”

Binienda, who said she’s been through budget cuts before as principal, said if she were superintendent she would look to work with state legislators. She said she would also tap into alternate funding sources, such as grants and donations from community partners.

“You have to be creative. You have to prioritize the things that you need, and you have to go to all area stakeholders and ask if they can help with this part of it,” Binienda said.

The superintendent search committee — which includes O’Connell, Monfredo and Jack Foley — will meet Monday, Feb. 29, to review the applications of individuals vying for the superintendent position.

Applications must be submitted by Monday night. Application materials from finalists will be posted on the schools website Friday, March 4; and finalists will be interviewed March 7, according to former School Committee member Tracy O’Connell-Novick.

A meet-and-greet is planned for 5 p.m., Wednesday, March 9, at Doherty Memorial High School.

According to O’Connell, the School Committee hopes to vote on the new superintendent at its 6 p.m. meeting March 14.

“We need to have that superintendent look at the budget and make recommendations as to what he or she feels is going to be in the best interests of Worcester Public Schools,” Monfredo said. “We certainly need someone that is going to guide us in our deliberation of the budget.”

“The right superintendent will be one that will be a champion for the schools and the community to help us secure funding in both the traditional sense from the state, but also from alternative options,” McCullough said.

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