WEST GREENWICH—Over the past two months, Exeter-West Greenwich Superintendent Dr. Thomas Geismar has said, repeatedly, that the amount the school district has proposed in its budget for the 2011-2012 school year was as small as possible and, after much debate, Geismar explained to both the school committee itself and the town councils of Exeter and West Greenwich that there were no more cuts to make.
Monday evening, the voters had their chance to weigh in on the matter and, after an all-day referendum that drew nearly 1,200 residents from both towns, the overwhelming consensus was clear: That’s not going to be good enough.
Despite winning approval from nearly 58 percent of Exeter voters, the EWG School Committee’s proposed budget of $30.8 million was shot down Monday thanks to a clear majority of West Greenwich voters who favored an amended budget proposed by West Greenwich resident Lee Kissinger.
The amended budget, totaling $29.9 million, represents an increase of $495,750 from the funding for 2010-2011 but slashes the amount the school district originally wanted in its operations budget by $928,944.
“It’s disheartening,” Geismar said Monday night after the results were read. “We have a really good school system and are spending the least amount of money that we can spend. But this is democracy in action, and on the other side, I understand that. I’m a taxpayer, too. Taxes are high and we all feel the stress of that.”
At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, Gesimar reiterated his point that, with a 13 percent reduction in staff size over the past four years, the district has done everything it can to keep costs as low as possible.
“I’m just disappointed that a town that’s carrying quite a surplus of its own wasn’t able to step up and give us the support we needed,” Geismar said, referring to the 64 percent of West Greenwich voters who didn’t approve the proposed budget. “And I hate to say that and some people might be upset with me for saying it, but I’m not happy. I don’t think it’s right. I told you there’s nothing left to cut. There’s nothing left to cut.”
Monday’s vote fell strictly down town lines and, according to Geismar, that was solely because of what each town was being asked to contribute.
In its proposed budget, the school district was asking Exeter residents to contribute nearly $10.4 million for the 2011-2012 school year, an increase of $62,650, or 0.61 percent, from last year. West Greenwich, on the other hand, was asked for an additional $262,482, or an increase of 2.16 percent from last year, for a total cost of $12.4 million.
Although this was done because West Greenwich residents compose 54.49 percent of the total student enrollment in the district, it ultimately proved to be a number too high to accept.
“Well, the way that amounts are portioned out to the towns, what they have to pay is based on the student enrollment in the school and West Greenwich has a slightly bigger student enrollment, so they pay a bigger part of it,” Geismar said Monday. “Years ago, that was reversed and, when it was reversed, it was the people in West Greenwich who were supporting the budget more so than the people in Exeter.
Exeter residents will look at that budget and say ‘well, it’s not much of an increase for our town’ whereas the West Greenwich folks will look at it and say ‘It’s a bigger increase for us’. And I think that’s what makes the difference.”
Ultimately, 270 of the 466 voters from Exeter approved the school committee budget as proposed, or 58 percent, while 169 voters opted for the amended budget instead.
West Greenwich voters, meanwhile, overwhelmingly supported the amended budget, by a vote of 431 of 707, with 254 agreeing with the school committee’s proposal.
All told, that gave the amended budget 600 of the 1,173 total votes, 76 more than the school committee’s proposal and enough for a majority victory.
The one thing voters from both towns could agree on Monday was the desire to change the school committee’s charter so that, in the future, the seats on the committee will be divided between the towns of Exeter and West Greenwich based on the total student enrollment.
After talking about their options Tuesday, the committee discussed what the amended budget entails exactly and, apart from the slashed operating budget, the only real change is in the amount of money the school committee will use from its available surplus and the amount each town will be asked to contribute.
While a finalized budget for the 2011-2012 is still to be determined, and further cuts will have to be made to get the school district to the $29.9 million approved operating budget, it’s clear from Monday’s vote that taypayers from West Greenwich want the committee to find a way to do even more with less.
“We’re just going to have to buckle down and make do with what we have and try to, as always, minimize the impact on our children.” Gesimar said Monday.