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NK voters will decide school budget today

June 7, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN—Voters from North Kingstown will take to the polls today for a special budget referendum to decide whether or not to increase the amount of money allocated to the School Department by $500,000 and, while the question seems simple enough, the impact of that decision is much more complicated.
On the surface, it seems that the approval of the additional funds would eliminate most of the $778,500 in cuts made by Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton over the past two months but, according to Thornton, that’s simply not the case.
“If it passes, I would go to the school committee on June 14th and, of all the things we had worked on, two things stand out that I would want to have them reconsider,” Thornton said Tuesday afternoon. “One would be the [removal of a proposed additional] social worker because it’s been a reoccurring need. I’d bring that back and also the sports cut of $30,000. I’d like to consider bringing that back.”
Those two potential reinstatements would represent a total of $107,500 of the additional $500,000 approved by voters. The rest, Thornton said, should be used to offset the $1.1 million the school department is taking out of its fund surplus for the 2012 budget.
“Given the other uncertainties—pension, health care, things are changing—I would recommend that if we get that funding, have the rest in reserve for the fall when things are happening in Rhode Island.”
The decision to set aside most of the potential new money approved by voters is one that doesn’t sit well with town officials—both town manager Michael Embury and the town council itself have publicly opposed the referendum—and even caused school committee member Melvoid Benson to question whether or not it violated the intent of the referendum at the school committee’s budget subcommittee meeting Tuesday afternoon.
According to Thornton, however, the move is in the school department’s best interest going forward.
“It’s not about one year at a time, it’s multiple years,” he said. “Health and pension alone this past year is over a million new dollars so we need to keep staying ahead of this.”
Thornton also stressed Tuesday that he felt part of the reason the petition was put forth was to potentially eliminate the district’s decision to consider looking into outsourcing custodial and food service workers and to change school clerk positions from a full year to 10 months.
But, all of those moves aren’t on the table for this year. Those, he said, are items the department is looking into for future fiscal years.
The impact the approval of the referendum would have on the town side, meanwhile, is still up in the air.
According to Embury, if voters approve the additional funds for the school department today, the town council has two options. First, it can vote to simply increase the amount of taxes generated by the town. Under this scenario, Embury says, the tax rate would increase approximately $0.15 to $17.46.
The second scenario involves the council directing Embury to make an additional $500,000 in cuts and, while Embury wouldn’t directly say what is on the chopping block should he be directed to make that call, he has come up with a tentative plan should the situation play out that way.
“That would be disappointing only because we’re down pretty low,” Embury said. “We’re lower for 2012 than we are for 2011. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Either way, Embury and Thornton will be watching tonight.
“I want to see what the voters direct us to do,” Embury said. “If the voters want the half million dollars added then it’s my responsibility to lay out what the options are for the council and then they’ll make that decision as the policy makers. I would not like to cut another half million dollars out of a budget that’s less for fiscal ’12 than we had in fiscal ’11.”
Today’s referendum vote will take place at Davisville Middle School and Cold Spring Community Center. Polls will be open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
A separate petition that sought to reduce the school budget by $1.6 million failed to get enough votes in time for last week’s deadline.
For more information, visit North Kingstown’s website at www.northkingstown.org.

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