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School budget talks get heated

April 29, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN—Frustrations over the proposed 2012 budget for the North Kingstown School District boiled over Tuesday night as School Committee members Larry Ceresi and Lynda Avanzato openly questioned whether or not the NK Town Council did everything it could to avoid potentially level-funding the district for the next fiscal year.
Pointing to the fact that the school district has frozen wages, and wondering why the town hasn’t done the same, Ceresi challenged the NK council and Town Manager Michael Embury to produce evidence that town employees haven’t received more money than last year and said that, if they have, it shows the town hasn’t done everything it can to cut their budget.
“Pays have not been frozen yet on the town side,” Ceresi said. “You’ll hear them say they have, that they‘ve received step increases, longevity bonuses, call it whatever you want, people are bringing home more money this year than last year.”
Challenging the council and Embury to produce the W-2 forms for town employees, and saying that those forms would prove that town wages have not been frozen, Ceresi called the budget process thus far “a hypocrisy”.
“They did not freeze their pays,” he said. “If I’m wrong, I will gladly resign from this committee on the spot. I guarantee you that and I guarantee you those W-2s will not be produced.”
Budget talks took up a large chunk of Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, with Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton explaining some of the cuts the district would have to make if the council did, in fact, slash the proposed increase of $713,000 the school department had asked for in its proposed budget.
“I was asked at a prior meeting to come back with some models of what it would maybe look like if that happened to us,” Thornton said. “I can tell you it’s not good news. I think it hurts us next year, it hurts us in other years as the money compounds upon itself. I know there are things on there that are subject to negotiation, that are subject to a lot of deliberation but if you see an item you don’t like, I’d ask what do you put in place of it? I think you’ll find it’s very hard to get to $0 without causing a lot of pain in the district.”
To get to level funding, Thornton would have to slash a total of $863,417 from the school district’s proposed budgets—$713,417 of which was the anticipated increase from the council, $150,000 of which comes courtesy of anticipated state aid shortfalls.
Thornton’s model factored in a proposed outsourcing of janitorial work in the district, which is still up for debate in the school committee. He said that, if approved, that would slash $225,000 from the budget. In addition, he proposes cutting a previously approved new social worker, a 0.2 business teacher, a 0.7 speech teacher, a 0.2 reading teacher at Davisville Middle School and, potentially, a first grade teacher at Wickford Middle School.
In addition, Thornton said, the district could look at reducing the amount of time school clerks are employed, putting them on a 10-month schedule that includes a week before and after the school year. But, he said, that would be a difficult thing to consider since the district does “a lot of work over the summer.”
The savings of that move, however, would amount to $92,000.
Thornton also talked about possible scheduling changes at North Kingstown High School that could result in $125,000 in savings but would limit the options many students have when selecting classes.
The final cost cutting suggestions involved looking into the athletics budget. Thornton cited, for example, sports like gymnastics and hockey, which cost the most when compared to the ratio of amount of kids who can participate and overall cost.
He cautioned, however, that all of the above-mentioned cuts are still just suggestions, many of which would be met with resistance from local taxpayers.
“It’s not pretty and there will be a lot of pushback,” he said, causing Avanzato to address claims made at last week’s town council meeting regarding the school committee’s budget.
“Their comments were that they’ve cut to the bone and the only place that they can see that has fat is the school budget,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re reading their budget. They need to do that.”
Avanzato explained that, over the past two years, and including this year’s proposal, local tax dollars have amounted to almost $6,000,000 and, of that, the school committee got just $1.4 million.
“That’s a 75-25 split approximately where the town took 75 percent of tax money but, as Councilman [Elizabeth] Dolan said, we have 67 percent of the obligations. Our budget is a larger budget and they’re taking, again, a lion’s share of the revenue. This is becoming a major problem and schools are going to suffer because of it. It can’t keep going on like that.
We’ve already taken [level-funding]. We’ve done our best. We’ve done a lot of good things to cut the budget in a responsible way and still preserve programs. I have to tell you, I look at town side and sometimes I don’t see the same effort.”

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