School Committee, Mayor Butt Heads Over School Funding

Supt. Priya Tahiliani and the School Committee butted heads fiercely with Mayor Carlo DeMaria at the School Committee meeting on Monday night over $1.4 million in funding that school leaders believe should be reimbursed.

The budget matter came up at the last meeting two weeks ago, and has been a point of contention between the schools and the City’s Finance Department for some time. However, on Monday night it came to a head as Supt. Tahiliani said she would “beg” for the money if need be to make sure students had the resources they needed.

According to Tahiliani, the outstanding money includes $471,000 from the federal CARES Act that was for hand sanitizer, masks and other PPE and was once transferred to their budget, but soon after removed without notice. Another $300,000 was mistakenly transferred from their Special Education Transportation fund last summer to try to preserve after-school programs for this coming spring, but that transfer was problematic and caused an accounting Snafu. The final $580,000 was the cost of the lease of the Devens School from Chelsea’s Tony Cassano Development. That charge, Tahiliani said, isn’t allowed by state law to be on the School Department’s books and should have been taken off many years ago.

Tahiliani said they front-ended a lot of costs for COVID-19 preparations and put off stocking up on the basics. Now, she said, custodians in the schools are saying the basics are in short order – things like toilet paper. The reimbursements cited above, she said, would be used for basics in many instances.

School Committee Chair Tom Abruzzese indicated, along with Tahiliani and other School Committee members, that they received a letter from the mayor saying the first two requests were “premature” and the Devens lease should be paid out of transportation costs.

“It was pretty clear what the answer was and it was ‘no,’” said Member Frank Parker. “Our entire Athletic Department budget is $400,000 and we’re being denied $471,000. That should show how important that money is.”

Mayor DeMaria said he simply asked for a budget request and wanted to see what the money would be spent on before reimbursing the schools.

“I don’t think the City refused or denied the schools,” he said.

He also said the City is trying to utilize every dollar to clothe, house and feed families that are in dire straits due to COVID-19 – so every dollar counts.

“Every dollar we are given by the taxpayers will be used to house and feed families,” he said. “We’re having serious problems with COVID…The social-emotional well-being programs (in the schools) are very important to me with kids struggling with remote learning. I don’t think anyone on the City Council would have a problem with okaying that funding…When you talk about tax dollars coming from a City to the School Department…the City would like an itemized budget of what you’ll do with the funds.

“The ($471,000) was last fiscal year. That fiscal year is over,” he continued.

The situation bothered Chair Abruzzese, who said he texted the mayor about the letter and wondered if it was a ‘no,’ and that it had disappointed him. However, he never got a text in return, and that led to a chippy argument between the two on the matter.

“The letter was not ‘no,’” said the mayor.

“I sent you a text and you never responded,” said Abruzzese.

“That text was abrupt to be honest with you,” said the mayor.

“The text read, ‘So I guess the answer is no,’” responded Abruzzese.

“That’s not how I operate,” responded the mayor.

“By giving a direct answer?” said Abruzzese. “That’s all I wanted to hear was ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

“The answer is neither,” said the mayor.

“So we have a maybe,” concluded Abruzzese.

That led to a long discussion on inviting City CFO Eric Demas to the meeting and allowing him to talk about the budget and funding impasse. Demas had spoken at the meeting two weeks ago, and it had been a very intense conversation that he often said was “contentious.” Both he and the schools said they hoped to get going on a better, more cordial relationship at that time.

However, that didn’t pan out on Monday night, when the Committee wasn’t in the mood to be “lectured” on the budget request. The Committee voted 7-0 (Millie Cardello was absent from the vote) to approve the Budget Presentation that Tahiliani gave, but then they also voted 5-2 to block Demas from speaking at the meeting. Members Cynthia Sarnie and Alan Panarese voted to allow him to speak, and Cardello was absent.

The matter is teed up for another discussion at the School Finance and Review Commission at City Hall on Thursday, Nov. 19. It will likely come before the City Council for a vote, potentially if the mayor allows it, at the Nov. 23 meeting or in December.

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