Take My Council, Please: Thrown under the School Bus Funding…
SPRINGFIELD—Cameras and unfunded mandates were the order of the day at the City Council Monday night. These two items dominated much of the agenda with the remainder of the agenda dispensed somewhat expediently.
Council President Michael Fenton informed the Council at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion would be absent. A family situation kept Ashe while no reason was given for Concepcion, who had attended Mayor Domenic Sarno’s kickoff earlier that night.
Department of Public Works head Chris Cignoli said snow removal equipment and supplies came in $1.3 million over budget this year. Expected surpluses within DPW would cover the remaining $100,000. Cignoli also received approval for $60,000 in transfers within his department to pay for software upgrades and flood control work mandated by the Army Corp of Engineers.
With the approval of the snow removal funds, the only notable feature in the City Comptroller’s April report—a deficit in DPW—was corrected.
Reports of committee included updates from Economic Development on cultural offerings and MGM’s workforce planning. The Health & Human Services Committee also met on MGM, namely, to discuss veterans’ concerns about recruitment for jobs at MGM as well.
The Council accepted utility and zoning reports, including one on changing the casino overlay district. Fenton told the Council the petitioner would be requesting a continuance next week.
Councilors transferred $750,000 from free cash to cover rising school transportation bills. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante told Councilors unanticipated increases in busing costs for charter schools and transporting homeless children in and out of the city were to blame.
Plante explained that state implementation of federal laws like the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, requires the city to pay for busing. To participate in McKinney-Vento’s grant programs, states must allow homeless students to remain at the school they previously attended even if their family is later placed out of district. In Massachusetts, the sending and receiving districts split the cost of busing that student. Of the $750,000, $523,000 covered transporting homeless children.
Another $82,000 was due to changing charter schools and extended hours as Sci-Tech. The city also faced an $81,000 in out of district busing to vocational schools in Holyoke and Northampton and $71,000 in out of district busing for special education students.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, a former School Committee member, inquired if there were any way to encourage the charters to schedule school so as not to require additional buses. If not, Shea suggested, the state should allow the city to only to pay for busing within the normal schedule of other schools.
Plante told Shea and his colleagues that discussions on this were continuing, particularly with the Chapter 70 commission reviewing the distribution of state education funding. However, short-term relief is unlikely.
“It is important for this body and others to truly understand there are so many forces we do not control,” Plante said. He added that busing costs in FY2016 are $27 million, funded entirely by the non-school side of the city budget.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, adding to Shea’s point, said the charter should pay for busing costs related to extended day. Plante concurred, “I would agree with you, but the state law says otherwise.”
Responding to an inquiry from Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, Plante explained costs quickly balloon for buses running beyond normal morning and afternoon waves of high, middle and elementary school students. Extended programs or even relocation of a charter school facility throws the schedule off. One bus, Plante said, costs on average of $65,000 a day.
The transfer was approved unanimously.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos offered the resolution urging the deployment of body cameras on city cops. Ramos acknowledged the Council has no role in bargaining and only expressing its opinion here, but recent promises of federal funding for cameras and pending state legislation requiring them spurred him to act.
Installing such cameras must be negotiated under state collective bargaining law, however. Historically, the Springfield patrolmen’s union has not outright opposed either type of camera, but wants rules and procedures for their use in place first. Last year’s police contract—reached after arbitration between the city and the union—did not include any cameras, but ordered the parties to study them in cruisers. Ramos’s proposal called on that study committee to consider body cameras, too.
While at-large councilor Kateri Walsh expressed a curiosity in the patrolmen union’s opinion, and Shea suggested the resolution be changed so as not to discount cruiser cameras, there was little opposition. Last year councilors reluctantly approved the police contract, hoping the next contract would include cameras.
Twiggs noted that the city’s payouts for police misconduct and that cameras often have the effect of exonerating the police. He turned to assistant city solicitor Anthony Wilson and asked how the city could appeal an arbitration ruling that omitted cameras.
While Wilson noted that HR/Labor Relations Director Bill Mahoney would be best suited to answer that questions, he said that following arbitration the only option is for the Council to vote down the contract and force the parties back to the negotiating table.
Mahoney did not attend Monday’s meeting, drawing the ire of longtime at-large Councilor Bud Williams who demanded to know the state of negotiations. Yet for several years now, city labor negotiations begin no sooner than six months before a contract expires. With the current policing contract running through June 30, 2016, negotiations are unlikely to start up before January.
The resolution as amended to avoid discounting cruiser cameras, passed on a voice vote.
As the Council has no role other than to approve the contract, little progress can happen in the Council chamber, absent a change in state law. Assuming the union’s position is only over how and not whether cameras are deployed, the onus is on the administration to push the issue. Still there are civil liberty concerns about body cameras (less so for cruiser cameras) that must be addressed.
With a resolution on cameras at least a year away, busing costs stood out Monday night. The state long ago disavowed funding Springfield’s regular busing costs, yet its homeless programs—such as housing them in hotels—have piled onto municipalities’ McKinney-Vento obligations. There is something inequitable about raiding the general funds of cash-strapped cities like Holyoke and Springfield for this policy no matter how well-intentioned.