Mayor Balks at Sending Amended School Budget for City Council Approval

School Committee member Sven Amirian (pictured) called on his colleagues to amend the mayor's proposed school budget by nearly $1 million. Ultimately, a majority of the board agreed to add roughly half that amount.

Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini said he will ignore the amendments the School Committee made to his education budget on Thursday.

A majority of committee members argued that the mayor’s proposed $84 million budget falls short of the amount needed to pay for critical needs, especially more teachers.

Committee member Sven Amirian continued his critique of the spending plan, begun at a budget hearing on Monday when Amirian declared the budget roughly $1 million below acceptable spending levels.

Fiorentini defended the allocation, which is $5 million higher than last year.

Their disagreement fueled more than one testy exchange like this one, with Amirian speaking first:

“Ninety-five percent of the cities and towns in Massachusetts spend more than Haverhill. There’s 351 school districts, and we’re near the bottom.”

“Do you want me to correct you now or later?”

“Go ahead, Mayor.”

“Those are 3-year-old numbers. That was before we added $15 million (over the last three years).”

“We can’t lose track of the fact that we are way, way behind.”

According to the Massachusetts state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Haverhill in 2016 spent about $13,000 per student, placing it in the bottom 50 statewide.

The mayor said there is more to consider than total dollars spent.

 “There isn’t a correlation between spending and performance,” Fiorentini said. “This isn’t a contest to spend the most.”

Amirian countered that financial support matters.

“I don’t think that being stingy is an attribute that we want to embrace.”

For two hours, committee members combed through the budget practically line by line, looking for places to trim and squeeze out money to pay for unfunded priorities.

Budget Manager Brian O’Connell promised to find $170,000 for a vocational program at the high school that prepares students for technology jobs. The money will likely come from unspent energy accounts, he said.

Members found additions to the district’s security corps in several line items, including guards for each middle school and two guards to protect visitors to the high school during evening events. The district also will pay $160,000 for two school resource officers -- one at the high school and one who rotates among the middle schools.

O’Connell said the budget also includes increased spending on security features such as cameras on buses.

Committee member Scott W. Wood Jr. said recent school shootings and other violent incidents around the country highlight the need for increased security in city schools.

“Security has to be a larger portion of our budget,” Wood said.

Committee members decided to reduce the number of additional security guards and transfer the money to pay for a special education teacher for the district’s autism program.

After wringing every dollar they could from the budget, nearly $500,000 remained to pay for items that principals identified as their top needs, including a teacher and paraprofessional for English Language Learners, a math specialist, a music teacher, an adjustment counselor, and transition specialist.

With the exception of Wood and the mayor, committee members approved an amended budget of nearly $84.5 million.

Fiorentini said the vote was for naught.

“I will not submit that number to the council,” he said.