By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
So you’ve got an idea how to trim the Middletown schools budget, but can’t make a municipal meeting. Or you’re nervous about putting your ideas out there in public. Maybe you just don’t want to get out of your pajamas and make a trip to town hall.
The good news is that you can sit tight at the computer desk and still be productive.
Middletown officials, who are in the midst of working with the board of ed on trimming the district’s voter-rejected budget, are now taking suggestions and ideas online from residents to get a sense how the bottom line can be reduced.
The link to make comments, at the township’s homepage, went live last week, and so far it’s been a hit, says Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger, with upwards of 60 suggestions funneling into his and committee members’ inboxes by late in the week.
“I think this is a huge success,” he said. “It’s a great system, because a lot of people work two jobs, they work in the city, and a lot of people are intimidated by getting up at a (committee) meeting.”
“There’s a lot of intricate suggestions from people whose boots are on the ground, really,” he said. “I guarantee several hundred comments by the time we have to make a decision.”
The committee has until Wednesday to make its recommendations to the school board, which can either accept or deny them. Whatever the final number is that the committee suggests, the board, if it accepts, can make cuts wherever it chooses.
The comments made online aren’t viewable by the public, Scharfenberger said. They go directly to each township committee member for review.
Scharfenberger said that “overwhelmingly people are asking the (teachers’) union to take a freeze,” a suggestion he recently made to the union but which, in turn, nixed the idea. Comments have also come in suggesting that administrative positions be eliminated and officials look at energy costs as a possible way to trim some fat.
The committee has been working with the school board to look for other areas of the budget to cut. Scharfenberger said talks will continue, but he’s still hopeful that the union will accept a pay freeze, which he estimates will save $3 million.
That doesn’t appear likely. The Middletown Township Education Association has apparently circulated an email to members excoriating Scharfenberger for “perpetuating a lie that the MTEA did not respond” to his April 30 deadline on the association’s decision on a wage freeze. The email, which urges that MTEA members make calls to the committee’s electorate and tell them how Scharfenberger’s “dirty politics are damaging and unproductive, and will not change our answer to his question,” popped up on a blog in town.
Calls made to the MTEA by redbankgreen were not returned.
Scharfenberger says that if the union maintains its current position, “We’re going to make every cut possible without affecting the children’s education.”
This new online feature is another way to do that, he said. It’s working out so well that Scharfenberger said it’s likely to be used as a tool to gain input on the township budget, which is still being worked on but has taken a back seat to education spending.
“We’re getting tremendous input and we’re getting a consensus, too,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the way this is working.”