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Council says no more funds for schools; Councilor Rosen: 'We have a bare bones budget; I just don't see the money there'.

Byline: Nick Kotsopoulos

WORCESTER -- Despite public pleas for more funding for education, the bottom line for the School Department budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 remains unchanged at $305.2 million.

While city councilors said they would support providing more funding for the public schools, they added there is no appreciable amount of money within City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr.'s $575 million fiscal 2015 municipal budget that can be reappropriated for education.

Councilors added they also would not support asking taxpayers to dig deeper by tapping into the city's $10 million tax-levy reserve.

"We have a bare bones budget; I just don't see the money there,'' said District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen in reference to boosting the bottom line of the School Department budget.

While Mr. Augustus made a concerted effort in his budget proposal to increase the city's investment in the public schools beyond the minimum required by the state, advocates said the city needs to do more.

Dante Comparetto, co-chairman of the Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council, said public school advocates are still "pretty frustrated'' about the proposed budget because it will lead to the elimination of 44 teaching positions.

"That's really unacceptable to us; classes will become too big,'' said Mr. Comparetto, who presented the City Council with a petition in favor of more funding for education that was signed by more than 250 people.

"We are deeply frustrated,'' he added. "For economic development to happen in this city, you have to embrace education.''

The CPPAC requested that the city fund the schools at 8 percent over minimum, which is about $22 million.

Chris Horton, a former public school teacher, said the loss of 44 teaching positions will result in larger classroom sizes that are not the best for teachers or students.

"It's really important to hold the line on classroom size,'' he said.

Mayor Joseph M. Petty, chairman of both the City Council and School Committee, said there is only a certain amount of dollars available for the budget, adding that the city manager and council have done their best to fund the public schools.

School Superintendent Melinda Boone said she appreciated the effort made by the city manager to boost funding for the public schools. But even with that, she said, the School Department is left with what is "pretty much a maintenance of effort budget.''

"It's a budget of sustainability,'' she said. "There is no money for new programs or expanding existing ones.''

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said he hopes public school officials give serious consideration to some of the recommendations recently made in an audit done on the schools' transportation system.

More than $1 million in potential budget savings were outlined in that report, with most of the savings generated by no longer providing bus service for public and private school students in Grades 7-12.

In accordance with state laws and regulations and School Committee policy, as well as out of concern for students' safety, the School Department provides regular transportation services to about 12,000 students (K-12) to six public high schools, four middle schools, 30 elementary schools, 15 alternative and private schools, and to 10 or more special needs schools outside Worcester.

To be eligible for school transportation, students must live two or more miles away from the school they are entitled to attend.

For fiscal 2013, the School Department's transportation costs were $15.3 million; they increased to nearly $15.8 million this year. For next fiscal year, student transportation costs are projected at $16.1 million.

Mr. Rushton said transportation is a "budget buster'' that sucks out a lot of money from classrooms.

"We can't give lip service to it,'' he said. "Where there's a will, there's a way. I think we can find ways of making this more efficient.''

Ms. Boone, meanwhile, said school officials will continue to look at finding what is the most efficient way to transport students.

Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at Follow him on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Kotsopoulos, Nick
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 29, 2014
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