Citizens to council: 'Don't cut the school budget'

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:39

    Meeting between Mayor, Deputy Mayor and two new BOE members raises questions, By Fran Hardy Sparta — The Township Council listened to a steady stream of citizens who lined up at the microphone on Tuesday, imploring them not to make any cuts to the school budget. Since the $56.3 million budget was rejected by voters on April 27, council will now be asked to review the budget and recommend cuts. They can also recommend to leave the budget as is. It was the latter choice citizens asked council to make, in statements that stretched the public portion of the meeting to one and-one-half hours. Some citizens brought their children with them to the microphone. Other citizens spoke two and three times. Many pointed to the fact the budget failed by only 89 votes, saying this hardly represents a mandate of the voters like last year’s 70 percent loss, so the council should consider not cutting at all. Lenore DeStefano said she wondered what would be the impact on the children and future effect on property values. She said, “Please don’t just look at the budget numerically, but consider the overall good of the town.” Jonathan Rush asked the council point blank, “Do you plan on cutting the budget?” Mayor Scott Seelagy responded that he had not had a chance to fully review the budget and is waiting for additional information and documentation from the district administration before he forms an opinion. Rush commended the board for keeping the budget to the 2 percent state cap, even without allowable waivers for health care and pensions. He said, “You have an easy solution. Leave the school budget alone and let’s move forward.” Sparta Education Association President Susan Sawey said, “Please consider that cutting dollars from the budget means cutting staff. Please do not impact the education of the children of Sparta.” Dan Lawford was the only citizen who spoke in favor of cutting the budget, saying the public has spoken two years in a row and the vote does represent a mandate that citizens are tired of all the spending. Unofficial meeting questioned The Sparta Independent received information that after the Board of Education’s reorganization meeting on Monday night, two of the newly sworn in board members, Frank Favichia and Rich Bladek met with Mayor Scott Seelagy and Deputy Mayor Jerry Murphy at the office of former board member Rich Sullivan. A witness observed the meeting, claimed to have heard a discussion regarding the school budget, and informed a board member who then phoned newly-named Board President Keith Smith to tell him the meeting was in progress. Smith said he then went to the location to find the two board members and the two council members present with various school budget materials spread out on the table. At Monday’s board meeting, Smith announced he had reached out to Seelagy to set up a preliminary meeting but had not heard back from him. Seelagy said Tuesday the meeting with Favichia and Bladek was just a preliminary discussion regarding the budget and said no decisions were made and no specific number to cut was discussed. Board members are required by their code of ethics to inform and/or request permission from the full board before meeting with other officials regarding specific board matters. Favichia acknowledged he is still unfamiliar with board rules and said the meeting was purely impromptu. “I saw this as an opportunity to better understand the process since to date no one (other than Mr. McKeren and Mr. Cervales) has offered any level of support or information regarding next steps,” Favichia explained. “I believe it’s my responsibility to ramp-up and integrate into the new BOE team and made best of the opportunity.” Seelagy has said several times publicly that he did not want to end up with the BOE budget again this year and met several times with former board president Jennifer Dericks to go over the budget prior to the election. Board member Maureen Myre said, “It’s ironic that in their campaign these candidates accused the sitting board of a lack of transparency, then one hour after they are sworn in, they’re having a secret meeting.” Former councilman and mayor Manny Goldberg said after the council meeting, “Even though this alleged secret meeting was on the edge of legality, it smells like a rotting, dead fish.”