Government

West Hartford Superintendent: Sending Non-Renewal Notices Doesn’t Mean Mass Layoff Planned

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton
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West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said that if non-renewal notices are sent to all non-tenured teachers, it’s only because it’s an administrative requirement.

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore emailed a letter to all West Hartford Public Schools staff on Friday afternoon, fearing that a comment he made during a legislative liaison committee meeting on Thursday was being misinterpreted to mean that all 230 non-tenured teachers might be laid off as a result of town budget cuts related to a reduction in state aid.

The legislative liaison meeting included Moore, Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow, Board of Education and Town Council members, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, Town CFO Peter Privitera, Executive Director of Human Resources Rick Ledwith, and State Reps. Derek Slap and Andy Fleischmann.

Moore said Monday that he had already met with teachers and discussed the need to send out non-renewal notices to all non-tenured teachers if the town doesn’t have a handle on its FY2018 budget before April 18. It’s a timing dilemma and an administrative function. There is a contractual requirement that the notices be sent out by May 1, and that a list of all teachers who will be non-renewed be provided to the Board of Education at a formal meeting in advance of the notices being sent. The last Board of Education meeting before May 1 is on April 18, said Moore.

“This is an administrative function I have to do because of the uncertainty in the budget,” Moore said. If there’s not enough confidence in what the state aid to West Hartford will ultimately be, some layoffs will be possible but the positions won’t be able to be identified in time and the non-renewals will be sent to all non-tenured teachers, he said.

Moore said that although the Board of Education will be considering spending reductions, cutting 230 teachers is not anything being considered, “not even under the most Draconian situation.” West Hartford employs approximately 900 teachers, and each $1 million of budget dollars translates to approximately 16 teachers, he said.

In his letter to staff on Friday afternoon, which he shared with We-Ha.com, Moore explained the reason for the non-renewal notices, which is something that other districts do routinely.

“When I started my career here, it happened to me twice. We have stopped doing this, as we greatly prize stability, but this year, due to budget timing, we may be forced into sending non-renewal notices. If we were to decide to do that, we would have a meeting with all non-tenured staff, where Rick Ledwith and I would explain the process, what it means, and when you could expect re-hire notices,” Moore wrote.

Moore also wrote in his letter to staff that a story about Thursday night’s meeting was published Friday in The Hartford Courant with a headline that initially read: “West Hartford Considering Cutting 230 Teachers in Wake of Malloy Budget Proposal.” He said that the headline “used a serious situation concerning people’s lives as click bait,” and it caused anxiety and confusion among teachers, staff, and parents.

Moore also wrote that after he “expressed his displeasure” the headline was changed to: “Facing Budget Uncertainty, West Hartford Alerts 230 Teachers to Possible Layoff” – wording that Moore said in his letter is better but “still inaccurate, as even the article would point out to anyone that bothers to read it.” Although many people realize the reason the notices might be sent, Moore said that he has been receiving passionate calls and letters from the public.

While Moore by no means wants to belittle the gravity of the situation that West Hartford faces due to a budget proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Feb. 8 that results in net loss of $14.5 million in state funding to the town, he said that mass panic is unwarranted. “I can’t make promises to people until I know what the Board of Education and Town Council are doing,” Moore said.

“I sincerely apologize to all of you that are put into a tense situation because of the budget process. I appreciate your support, and your continued devotion to our children in a less than ideal environment,” Moore wrote in his email.

Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said Monday that he still doesn’t know what the town’s budget will look like.

Included in Malloy’s proposed budget is allocation of one-third of teacher pension costs from the state to the municipalities. In West Hartford, the impact is $8.01 million, a number that has been included in the budget Moore presented to the Board of Education on March 7, and a sum that has a sizable impact. Moore’s overall budget, which incorporated the governor’s budget, included an overall 8.44 percent increase.

The education budget was incorporated into the budget that Van Winkle presented to the Town Council on March 8 – a budget also impacted by drastic cuts in Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grants and one which would increase taxes by an overall 10.3 percent.

“But our legislators are telling us the governor’s budget is not going to survive,” Van Winkle said. The town is looking to reduce spending, and wages are a large part of that, but not a reduction of 230 teachers. The notices to the 230 teachers are “perfunctory,” he said. Other towns issue them every year but it’s not something typically done in West Hartford.

“By mid-April we are going to guess at what the legislature is going to do,” Van Winkle said. He doesn’t want to underestimate the budget and have to make significant layoffs after the fact, but neither does he want to over-tax residents and businesses.

State Rep. Derek Slap, a member of West Hartford’s legislative delegation, said Monday afternoon that it’s unprecedented to have this much uncertainty about the state’s budget and its impact on the town.

“I’ve gotten dozens of emails from concerned residents,” he said. Slap, along with State Reps. Andy Fleischmann and Joe Verrengia, and State Sen. Beth Bye, also heard concerns from the public at a League of Women Voters forum on March 9.

Slap said that he is opposed to allowing the teacher pension costs to be pushed to the municipalities, and the rest of the West Hartford delegation is also opposed to it and will not support the budget proposed by the governor. “There are even questions about the legality of it,” Slap said.

“I don’t see how the state budget [as proposed] will get enough votes to be passed,” said Slap. The Democratic majority in the legislature is much smaller, and a loss of votes from West Hartford Democrats could be enough to stand in the way.

“If there is any good news it’s that we’re not alone,” said Slap. Other towns around the state, like Milford, are also faced with an enormous negative impact from the governor’s budget.

Slap said that it’s incumbent upon the legislative delegation and town leaders to be in constant communication about the situation, and that’s what is taking place. Mayor Shari Cantor was testifying at the Capitol on Monday, he said, and there is a budget caucus planned for Wednesday.

Municipal aid is the largest non-fixed cost in the state budget, and it’s the easiest target, Slap said, but the legislature will be looking at other cuts as well as considering other options for increasing revenue. There’s also a chance that the deficit to be plugged will be less than the $1.7 billion the budget addresses, said Slap.

“We’re stuck in a difficult spot and have to collect whatever information we have,” Van Winkle said. Because the need for reduction in staff might be greater than the number of teachers lost through natural attrition of retirements and leaving the district, the superintendent is obligated to inform all untenured teachers.

Van Winkle said that if the town is able to adopt its budget on April 25 as planned, the notices may not need to be sent out because the number will be set before May 1. There is a possibility that the legislature may pass a bill to allow towns to override their charters and delay budget adoption, and in that case the numbers would remain uncertain beyond the May 1 deadline, and all of the non-renewals would need to be sent.

The Town Council’s Finance and Budget committee met Monday morning Van Winkle said, but that meeting focused on the Risk Management budget. Future committee meetings will dissect other parts of the budget and consider cuts. The cuts – and the budget that the Town Council will vote on – won’t be finalized until a final decision is made about what the legislature will do with the state budget.

“The overwhelming thing is the governor’s budget,” Van Winkle said.

“I think there’s very little support [for the governor’s budget], certainly not among the West Hartford delegation,” Slap said.

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