METHUEN — The mayor and the superintendent of schools are nearing an agreement on service charges the city levies on the School Department every year — a list of expenses that has become a source of tension at budget time the last few years.
Mayor Stephen Zanni and Superintendent Judith Scannell have said the agreement would itemize the list of charges and provide a written basis for a part of the budget that some School Committee members have pushed back on based on what they said they were told in prior years.
“Things in the past were done verbally,” Zanni said. “This will put everything in perspective and everything will be down on paper. Once we agree to that, I will send a copy to the Council and the School Committee.”
The details have not been finalized, he said. But in a general sense, he said he wanted the agreement to include the list of charges and a set cost, either per charge or in total, that both the schools and the city can use to budget from. Once the agreement is worked out, Zanni and Scannell will sign it, and Zanni will present it to the City Council and the School Committee, which he chairs in his capacity as mayor.
“Then it becomes transparent and everybody knows what will be charged,” Zanni said.
Another possibility for the agreement could include a cap in the total amount of charges, and if the total rises above a certain predetermined figure, charges could be reduced or negotiated in some areas to fit within that cap.
City and school officials hoped a written agreement, which the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggested the city use, will simplify the act of passing a budget and head off potential conflict over the number and cost of charges.
“Our objective is to have an agreement in place that allows the City and School Department to agree on city charges at the beginning of the budget process,” Scannell said.
Zanni said he, Scannell, City Auditor Tom Kelly and school Business Manager Glenn Fratto have been meeting every other week to finalize the deal, and he hoped it could be finished and signed in time for the start of the budget cycle in January.
This fiscal year, the city charged the School Department $10.66 million, with the majority, about $6.2 million, going into the city’s employee health insurance pool. Another $2.5 million went into the employee retirement program. The remainder was assessed for services city employees, such as the city auditor and human resources, provides to the School Department.
Zanni and the School Department sparred over those charges for a couple weeks in June after the state revised required spending figures and School Committee members balked at some cuts the mayor proposed to close the gap. School officials suggested reducing payments to the Public Works Department, which maintains the city’s fields, and the Police Department, which assigns officers to each school.
School Committee members pressed the city for a breakdown of the charges for the upcoming year, rather than a list of charges from previous years, citing a recommendation several years ago from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that a list be set to writing and agreed upon in advance.
They reached an agreement that met the mayor’s spending target but did not reduce classroom staff and kept police officers in each of the schools. The DPW charge was reduced in the compromise.
The School Department approved a $74.4 million budget for 2013 that included school spending, city charges and about $4 million for transportation.
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