ABOE defers budget cuts after getting an earful

ABOE defers budget cuts after getting an earful
Front page headline in the 9-13-2001 edition of the Orange Bulletin

Nearly two hours of public comment before a motion to table reductions

By Sheila McCreven-Helfenbein, Correspondent
Orange Bulletin September 13, 2001 edition

Before receiving a recommendation from its Budget Committee with a list of $830,000 worth of cost reductions for the 2001-02 fiscal year, the Amity Board of Education (ABOE) opened the floor to public comment to allow parents, staff and students to be heard.

A crowd of about 450 packed the Junior High School gym in Orange Monday night, braced to hear the Board deal with its newly discovered financial crisis. When asked to extend time for the public to be heard, Board members quickly agreed to amend their agenda to allow addition comment after the Board had a chance to ask questions and comment itself on the slate of cuts before it.

Expressing deep concern over the state of financial affairs that brought them to this night, Board members probed the recommendation and explored possible avenues to raise additional funds. They examined each cost cutting measure to determine if elimination would directly impact students and teachers.

Embattled Superintendent Rolfe Wenner said he and the administration were "committed to solve the problem without impacting programs and staff." He met his critics head-on by saying "People can criticize and call for resignations, but when you start talking about the fact that you have a problem, then you have to solve it. And that is not related back to the blame game."

"What we're proposing may not be totally accepted by all groups," Wenner continued "but the only realistic way to solve this problem is to, number one, address the issues that created it, and I have the utmost confidence that Andy Potochney" will do this. "The second recommendation is that, in my opinion, it will require some support from the towns, in the form of a bond or a referendum, for us to move forward." 

Potochney commented that the fiscal crisis "didn't happen overnight, and it can't be fixed overnight." He also updated the Board on his plans to make specific policy recommendations to the ABOE's October meeting regarding control of purchases and a review of the financial reporting system in use by the district.

These two problem areas were highlighted in an overview of the district by management consultant RSM McGladrey Inc., in a final report to the ABOE received at a November 2000 meeting.

Opening up the initial public comment section, Amity High School student government President Garland Jackson urged the Board to spare teachers from the chopping block. "If we cut faculty and program, we cut Amity."

Many other speakers echoed these sentiments.

In a letter to the Board and BOW Selectmen, Karen Shinkman, President of the teachers union implored "Please don't punish our children for grown-up mistakes or alleged mismanagement... teachers urge you to consider carefully the consequences of each and every action you take. Make short-sighted decisions today, and it is our young people who will pay."

Many speakers expressed frustration and concern that the full story of what went wrong was not readily available to the public. One Woodbridge resident asked the Board for "detail set into a larger context – so you don't need to be an insider to come into a meeting and understand."

Bob Weber, an Orange resident, implored the Board "Don't shift the weight of the problem onto the students and teachers. The problem lies with the Board; have the courage to solve the problem. If you have to ask residents for more money, do it!"

A senior at the high school, Anthony Monelli from Bethany, reflected on the proposed elimination of $53,000 for the Inland/Wetland study necessary before any building expansion Referendum could proceed to a vote this spring. He said, "Facility expansion plans can not be cut because our excellent program depends on adequate facility."

Another Amity student, Scott Fineberg a sophomore, questioned why the budget cuts were necessary so soon into the fiscal year. He said "I respectfully question cuts that are anticipating things at this stage. I don't think it's smart – at this stage, in this school system – to anticipate anything."

Leonard Bell, a parent of Amity students and newly appointed member of the Woodbridge Board of Finance, asked specific questions about the amount earmarked for lawyers' fees in this fiscal year's budget.

Potochney replied that the current budget contained $450,000 for legal costs this year. But when Bell asked how much of this the district has paid to date this year, and how much it now projects will be spent on legal costs in the remaining 10 months of the fiscal year, he was cut off by the Board. The audience was told that details like this would be discussed at upcoming Budget Committee and Financial Advisory Panel (FAP) meetings. 

After hearing from everyone who chose to comment, Board member Mike Appuzo made a motion to table approval of the recommended reductions to the 2001-02 budget. The final vote was 11-2 in favor of the motion, with Santo Galatioto and Ken Downey casting the two opposing votes.