WINTHROP — Town councilors on Monday responded to the prospect of nearly a dozen teacher layoffs by restoring $100,000 to the proposed school budget.
In a 5-2 vote that reversed a decision made the previous week, the board agreed to restore the money during a meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes and included no discussion other than making the motions and voting.
School Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said the vote restored full funding the budget originally proposed by the school board. Councilors at a Jan. 13 meeting slashed $100,000 from that budget in a bid to force the school board to require teachers to pay a greater percentage of their health insurance premiums. School board members said the cuts would instead result in layoffs.
“I’m pleased,” Rosenthal said after Monday’s vote. “We talked about the fact we’re doing the hard work all along. I think they validated that effort.”
Both the Jan. 13 vote to cut the budget and Monday’s vote to restore the money passed 5-2. Council Chairman Kevin Cookson and Councilor Ken Buck Sr. voted against restoring the money. Councilors Sarah Fuller and Don Ellis, who voted against the cuts last week, on Monday cast their vote with the majority.
The motion to restore the funding was made and seconded by Councilors Linda Caprara and Lawrence Fitzgerald, both of whom had originally voted to cut the budget.
Cookson said board members were persuaded to change their vote after the school board announced that layoff notices would begin going out this week. Cookson said the cut was designed to save money in health insurance without causing layoffs.
“I’m not against the schools,” he said. “In this economy you have to start making cuts somewhere.”
The nearly $10 million budget is about $500 less than the 2012-13 budget. It closely mirrors a proposal town councilors rejected in June of 2013 after an auditor flagged problems in more than 20 school spending accounts. Councilors froze spending on the accounts and delayed the budget process until the completion of a more thorough audit, the results of which were presented in September.
The budget process stalled until December when councilors agreed to send the budget to a public hearing, which was held Monday night. Rosenthal said more than 150 people attended the public hearing, about 70 of whom commented. Rosenthal has said everyone who commented urged councilors to send the budget to voters.
But councilors rejected the budget and agreed to send a budget to voters that cut $100,000 from the instruction line item. Councilors have urged the school board since last summer to revamp the teachers’ contract to force the educators to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums. Councilors have said the mandate is motivated by the desire for teachers’ plans to be similar to what’s offered to town employees. Winthrop teachers currently pay nothing for individual coverage and 15 percent of premiums for plans that include spouses and families.
The School Board met Wednesday and announced that instead of requiring teachers to pay a larger portion of their health insurance premiums, the budget cut would force the district to lay off as many as 10 teachers. That number, suggested during Wednesday’s meeting by school board member Kristin Shumway, is an estimate because the positions have not been identified. Shumway said the layoffs would involve a number of teachers, however, because by the time they occur the educators would have already been paid for much of the year and the teachers who are laid off would have the least amount of tenure and thus earn less money.
Fitzgerald, who attended the meeting, responded by suggesting he would urge the council to reconsider the cut. He said the council “was not interested” in layoffs.
The budget will now go to voters for a referendum that was originally scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 11. Town Manager Jeffrey Woolston was uncertain Monday night whether the vote would have to be rescheduled.
Regardless of when it takes place, Rosenthal is confident voters will approve the budget, which he noted is slightly less than last year. Cookson, however, does not share Rosenthal’s optimism. Based on comments he has heard, Cookson believes the budget is more likely to be rejected. If it is, the school board will have to repeat the process of developing new budgets to send to voters until a proposal is approved. The town council, by state law, would not play a role in that process, Cookson said.
What the voters will decide remains to be seen, but on Monday evening Rosenthal, teachers and the school board members who attended the meeting were wearing smiles of relief. School Board Chairman Isaac Dyer appreciated the councilors’ quick work to correct what Dyer believes was a mistake.
“It showed great courage on their part,” he said.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 firstname.lastname@example.org