Mayor Carlo DeMaria – after having been silent for several months on the school funding issue – said on Tuesday morning that the School Department and their allies need to stop the attacks on him, and stop spreading misinformation about budgetary issues – including the recent $2.5 million state appropriation now in flux.
“They need to stop with the attacks and come in and have a meeting and discuss this rationally and not running to some local newspapers and cable television to scare people,” he said. “They are using scare tactics. That’s not how I operate…I didn’t get re-elected on a popularity contest, unlike some. I got re-elected because I keep my word. I’m trying to build a healthy community. I don’t like watching School Committee meetings where they scare parents or they call parents on Monday morning saying the mayor is cutting out-of-state travel for the band (earlier this year). That was never the case and we all know it. It has to stop.”
Mayor DeMaria sounded off after a meeting on Monday night when several school officials, and some councilors, called for the $2.5 million to be transferred to the School Department immediately. It followed a School Committee meeting on Oct. 15 where a similar sentiment was expressed by the Committee and Sen. Sal DiDomenico. On Monday night at the Council, it was, however, sent to the School Finance Review Committee instead for discussion on Nov. 1.
DeMaria said the money is another example of scare tactics, and he and his administration said there was a deal in place for reimbursing the City if any new monies came in – including additional Chapter 70 monies such as the $2.5 million. With the City already providing $6.5 million more than it was required to provide this budget year – and $6 million from its savings account during an emergency budget crisis last spring – the Mayor said there was an agreement to allow the City to keep the money.
“We had an agreement we were going to put any and all supplemental monies into the Stabilization Fund,” he said. “That was the agreement. My administration has always spent on school capital improvements. I re-built the Parlin School and have put capital improvement money into the schools each year. No other mayor before me has done that. We are trying to build a K-8 school and we’re conducting a feasibility study to build out a vocational school. We will need to borrow to do that, and if our bond rating is taken down by routinely spending from our savings, then we will not be able to do all those things we need to do.”
The impasse at the moment rests on the fact that the School Department and DiDomenico – as elicited last week at a School Committee meeting – contend that the $2.5 million was “found money” and was supposed to go directly to the schools. It wasn’t, said Supt. Fred Foresteire last week, part of any agreement because it came after the City Budget process.
DeMaria said the money was no “earmark” from DiDomenico and was part of the normal State Budget process. At the same time, City Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Eric Demas said there was an established agreement for that money to come to the City if the state delivered it.
Demas said when the City had to spend $6 million last spring from its Stabilization Fund, or its savings account, to help the schools, it was engaging in bad policy – a policy of paying the bills from the savings account. This year, Demas said, an upfront budget process was supposed to prevent that. In turn, the mayor guaranteed $6.5 million in additional funding for the schools, always intending to be reimbursed partially if the state monies came through.
“We can’t pay for operations with our savings account and we did not want to do that again,” said Demas. “There was talk the state might send us that extra money for the schools, but there were no guarantees. The mayor and City Council guaranteed those additional funds in the normal budget, knowing that we might be reimbursed some of it later. We got the $2.5 million recently, and so that should leave us with funding the schools an extra $4 million.”
Demas points to a presentation he gave during the budget process to the School Committee and the City Council. A slide from that presentation states: “The total requested budget ($81.380 million) submitted by the School Department will be the total budget for the year. There will be no supplemental appropriations during the year from other funding sources (Medicare reimbursements, state funding, stabilization, or free cash.)”
“The whole purpose of this year’s budget process was not to have a repeat of the process we had last year when we had to pay school bills with our savings account,” said Demas. “That is not good policy or practice in any department.”
DeMaria said things have to be discussed openly and honestly and without scaring people. He said money is tight right now, nothing is guaranteed with the casino at the moment, and the City needs to be honest about money in all departments.
“It’s like the band issues earlier this year,” he said. “I was never going to cut out of state travel for the band kids…They told everyone the mayor wanted to cut out the trip for the kids. Everyone knows that was the furthest thing from the truth. Then they have the senator up there talking about his earmark for the band kids. That’s a one-time earmark and I have to worry about that funding every year. There may come a time – hopefully not – when you have to balance things between whether the kids can go to D.C. or their families can stay in their homes because they’re being pushed out of the city and living paycheck to paycheck. That’s the reality I deal with every day.”
On top of that, he said the School Finance Review Committee is the right place for the School Department and City Hall to get back on the same page about the many funding issues.
“The proper place to talk about transferring school funding is the School Finance Review Committee,” he said. “We’re going to talk about it rationally. (The schools) may not want to talk about some of these issues, but we have to do it. Who are we going to hire in November and December that isn’t already hired? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think we would be dealing with the cream of the crop. I’m trying to be a prudent leader…Maybe we need to look at money spent that isn’t instructional. If we can cut money that isn’t being used for instruction, maybe we can hire more teachers. We all want everything, but sometimes during difficult times, you can’t have everything.”
Demas has strong words for presentation at School Committee
City CFO Eric Demas said he is taking major offense to a financial presentation given by School Official Charles Obremsky at last week’s School Committee meeting.
This week, Demas called the presentation an “insult” to all taxpayers.
In the presentation, Demas said he was not happy to hear Obremsky say the taxpayers are only responsible for about $6-7 million of the school budget.
“That was a serious misrepresentation and an insult to the taxpayers,” Demas said this week. “Taxpayers also pay for benefits, health insurance among other things. It’s insulting and would not stand up to any independent review. My work would stand up to an independent review because I don’t play with numbers. That presentation last week was an extreme misrepresentation.”