A shortfall in Haverhill’s school budget for next year resulted in finger pointing and claims of disingenuousness at last week’s School Committee meeting.
Assistant Superintendent Michael J. Pfifferling began by explaining how the budget for the current school year was determined. He explained money came of three sources, state Chapter 70 education; Esser III, derived from the American Rescue Plan Act; and a contribution from the city.
“All in, $115.4 million with those resources. There was an increase, given to the school department of $1.82 million to settle the strike. So, that brought our approved budget for last year up to $117, 236,000,” he explained.
Pfifferling said for the upcoming year, working with contributions from those same sources plus an additional $1.63 million from the city as part of the settlement of the teachers strike, they assumed a budget totaling $127,937,000.
That assumption, however, was tempered when they were told by Mayor James J. Fiorentini and Haverhill Chief Financial Officer Angel Wills, the $1.63 million is not be available for the year that begins July 1 and the $1.82 million was already included with this year’s Chapter 70 funding, meaning, to provide level services next year, the school department is facing a $3.3 million shortfall.
Asked by Committee member Gail M. Sullivan why the school department assumed two strike related amounts would be carried over into the upcoming year, Pfifferling responded he was given that information by the School Committee’s strike negotiating team last October.
Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti was part of that negotiating team, all of whom verified it was their belief the two sums were not a one and done deal.
“This really was our struggle throughout the strike negotiations is we’re dealing with money that we didn’t have and it wasn’t until we got the commitment from the city for the 1.8 million and the 1.6 million that we were able to settle the strike,” he explained.
Fiorentini, who was not a direct participant in the negotiation because of a potential conflict of interest, said it was not his understanding the extra funding was ever intended to continue infinitum.
“I was aware that the city committed to pay the shortfall that you had last year and we paid it, but this is the first administration that I’ve worked with that has built a budget based on fantasy without coming in to see me and saying, ‘How much money is available?’ I can’t manufacture money. I don’t have an oil well in the back of city hall,” he said.
The mayor continued his harangue asking, “Did you really think you were going to give big pay raises and the money would come from the sky to pay for them? What were you thinking?” He added it was his belief that any additional money should come in the form of increased ARPA money through the state.
Committee member Richard J. Rosa, who also took part in the strike negotiations, disputed the mayor’s recollection of what financial commitments had been made at that time. He said the Committee received promises of continued financial support from the city’s chief financial officer.
“Every single person on this School Committee was ready to hold firm. We did not agree to any of those raises until we got assurance that there would be money. And, not only did we get assurance for that year, but we were presented with data for that year, what the interested would be compounded would be the next year and the year after that,” he said.
Scott W. Wood Jr., who was also a member of the negotiating team, verified Rosa’s recall saying the board would have never agreed to the raises if doing so would put the future of Haverhill’s schools in jeopardy.
Fiorentini said he would discuss the matter with Wills, but believes the only way to resolve the issue is for cuts to be made in the school budget. He added, if voters pass the proposed debt exclusion next month, some money would be freed up that could be used to help offset the shortfall.
In the meantime, the mayor, the school committee and school administrators agreed to meet at least twice more to find ways to resolve the issue.