In a city council meeting that was part community rally, part political posturing and part Jerry Springer show, the council transferred $5 million from its reserve account to the schools avoiding teacher and staff layoffs, at least for now. Some 110 layoffs were scheduled to take effect Friday. That won’t happen for at least a month according to the city’s school superintendent.
The school department is facing a $9 million shortfall which would have necessitated the layoffs had the city not stepped in. The $5 million transfer was the original proposal from the mayor and represented the maximum amount the city could take from its reserve accounts and still maintain its municipal bond rating, city officials said. After nearly three hours, the council approved that amount. But not before some serious drama from all sides.
The public participation portion of the meeting featured various teachers, students and parents testifying to the importance of avoiding layoffs to maintain school excellence. They were persuasive and impassioned.
The fireworks began after competing proposals to help the schools emerged from councilors. The administration of Mayor Carlo DeMaria proposed the $5 million but not without strings. The schools will undergo an operational audit to determine if efficiencies can be found. There will also be the establishment of a task force on school finance and an internal school finance review commission.
Councilor Michael McLaughlin proposed a stop-gap measure that would keep the schools running without layoffs for 30 days during which time all parties could work to figure out a solution. Council Fred Capone proposed a larger amount that represented what the schools would have received from the city anyway. McLaughlin withdrew his motion and supported Capone’s. The measure failed.
The meeting went off the rails as councilors argued amongst themselves over McLaughlin’s and Capone’s alternatives. McLaughlin was willing to ask every question and leave no stone unturned to get the best result. Capone, who clearly has the best understanding of proper parliamentary procedure, was shouted down by a couple of other councilors.
When it was time for School Superintendent Fred Foresteire to speak, the real show began. He held court. He repeatedly ignored rulings from the chair of the meeting, Councilor Rosa DiFlorio (Council President Peter Napolitano recused himself as he has two sons working in the school system). Foresteire simply disregarded her.
At various times during the meeting both Mayor Carlo DeMaria and Foresteire declared their working relationship to be wonderful and productive; and their personal relationship to be that they’re best of friends. Their heated words belied those claims. Foresteire in particular raised his voice repeatedly at the mayor, at one point jabbing his finger in the mayor’s direction and saying, “Don’t you dare make that statement” about whether the two had an agreement on a particular point.
Foresteire also objected to the operational audit of the school department proposed by the mayor and attacked the administration to show it. He demanded the city face an audit as well and he pointed out the city got $12.5 million from Wynn Resorts but saw taxes increase anyway which had nothing to do with the purpose of the council meeting.
The schools’ representatives sent mixed messages. During questioning, the schools’ business agent said the $5 million would reduce the number of layoffs but that some would still occur. Foresteire told me after the meeting that none would occur for at least a month. It demonstrated the degree to which the school department operates as it wants to.
Also perplexing were Foresteire’s claims that the school department’s budget is not currently overspent and is not on course to be overspent. If that is the case, why was he before the council looking for millions in help? He also declared at one point, “In 52 years, the school department has not been funded at the levels it should be.”
The takeaways from meeting:
1. School layoffs are still coming, likely in a month, unless a more definitive solution is found.
2. Superintendent Foresteire wields an unusual and troubling amount of power.
3. The council should have a parliamentarian on hand for these meetings to advise on proper order and it needs to be strictly enforced.
4. The city should demand that the schools provide updates on any budget activity (such as adding unfunded positions after the budget is set) so a shortfall of $9 million doesn’t come out seemingly nowhere.
5. No one should be surprised if this entire scenario plays out again in 30 days.