EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 27, 2012

Lawrence schools payroll to top $100M

By Mark E. Vogler

Click HERE to see the full text of Jeffrey Riley's school budget

LAWRENCE — Lawrence Public Schools' annual payroll will go over $100 million for the first time in the city's history in fiscal 2013.

A $4.8 million hike in overall salaries for the city's 2,000 School Department employees — due to step increases negotiated before the state placed the district in receivership — accounts for more than half of the $8.3 million increase in the proposed education budget for the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1.

But pay raises aren't part of the $152-millon spending plan unveiled last night by Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley.

The increases reflect the school district's contractual agreements approved before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to put the troubled school system into receivership last November. "These are the step increases that occur automatically," Riley said. "No raises have been given," he said.

Current salaries amount to more than $96 million — or two-thirds of the current school budget.

Riley was available for questioning last night in the Hall of the School Committee during a public hearing on a budget that made history for another reason — the lack of involvement by the School Committee.

Under the vote taken last year by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the committee has been stripped of its governance powers — including approval of the School Department budget.

"For the first time in Lawrence Public Schools history, salaries have gone over $100 million," said veteran School Committee member James Vittorioso after last night's meeting.

"And this is the first time in the history of the City of Lawrence that the School Committee had nothing to do with the budget," said Vittorioso, who is serving his 11th year on the committee.

Vittorioso and fellow School Committee members sat in the audience like spectators instead of participants last night. Mayor William Lantigua, who chairs the seven-member committee, was absent.

"I don't like being a bystander, but that's the law," said Vittorioso, who voted on 10 previous School Department budgets. "Personally, I'd like to be more involved," he said.

But Vittorioso was one of two city residents who spoke during the public hearing. He questioned Riley on why the proposed budget included $135,500 for the School Committee. Riley acknowledged that it was one several mistakes that needed to be corrected.

Riley stressed that the document he presented "is not a definitive budget at this time." He added that there would be other changes before it is adopted.

For instance, the proposed budget provides close to $1.9 million in salaries for Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron's office, compared to the current budget of $264,512. Overall costs for the office would increase from $387,512 to about $3.2 million.

"Included in this office is funding for personnel, additional time and operating expenses for new initiatives or programing required under the District Turnaround Plan," the budget narrative noted.

In an interview after the meeting, Riley said he plans to explain how the money will be used on various positions and initiatives after state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester has approved the turnaround plan for improving the city's school system.

Assistant Superintendent Bergeron and the school district's budget and finance director Christine Bufagna helped Riley prepare the document he presented last night.

"As Mr. Riley mentions, there's a lot of refinement that needs to be done in this budget," Vittorioso said.

"What sticks out to me are the spiraling increases in salaries. But these contracts were settled before Mr. Riley came in and he has nothing to do with that," he said.

Vittorioso has often been critical of rising education costs and has previously predicted that the Lawrence Public Schools' budget will top $200 million by 2020.

"With all this money being spent, have the educational opportunities for the students in Lawrence increased? I have no answer for that. And I guess we will have to wait to see," Vittorioso said.

"To me, the money is well spent if the students produce. For that to happen, all kids that enter Lawrence High School need to graduate in four years. Right now, many students take an extra year to graduate. Many students fall out before they graduate," he said.