By LINDSAY OLIVIER
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Budget season is looming for both the North Kingstown Town Council and the School Committee and, if Monday night is an indication, it’s not going to be pretty.
In an attempt to begin discussing the major challenges both the town and schools will soon face, the two elected branches of local government met in a joint session before the public where they each stated their case about the difficult choices that lie ahead.
“We’re meeting very early so we can have a better understanding of where we will start financially,” Town Council President Liz Dolan said. “This will help us all work the best we can in a bad situation.”
Town Manager Michael Embury called the pension topic the “900 pound gorilla in the room.”
“We’re in limbo until we find out what that effect is going to be.” he said
What is known is that the town’s levy cap is four percent. If approved, the net maximum levy would give the town a little over $2.5 million extra to work with, assuming there is no change in the tax base and collection rate. Currently, the estimated tax rate is $17.96, an increase of 70 cents over fiscal year 2012.
Any decline in the town’s tax base will require an adjustment in the tax rate to raise the same amount of tax dollars in fiscal year 2013 as was raised in fiscal year 2012.
Embury is working on three budget scenarios that he will submit to the Town Council, one that assumes a four-percent increase in the operating budget, one that accounts for a two-percent increase and one that is level-funded.
According to Embury, without an increase in the levy, cuts in the $4-to-$6 million range would be required because of increased pension costs. A two percent increase would still require cuts ranging from $2.5 to $4.5 million and a four percent increase would require cuts ranging from $1.5 to $3 million.
“I’ve been in this business for 30 years and this is the worst I’ve seen it in terms of budget cuts,” he said.
Following Embury’s presentation, NK School Superintendent Dr. Philip Auger explained the daunting task of potential cuts the school committee could potentially have to make.
“It is no secret that economic times are very difficult right now,” he said. And the pension crisis in Rhode Island is making it especially burdensome for us to sustain the educational programs and services to which we have become accustomed.”
Auger explained that, with an increase of over $2 million in pension costs, the school department may find themselves with a $2.9 million shortfall for next year.
While he said it’s too early to have concrete budget figures, Auger made a list of items and approximate costs of the kind of reductions the school district may face to address the potential heavy deficit.
“I want to stress that these are not my recommendations,” Auger explained. “I want all of you to know that I will do all in my power to avoid these types of drastic measures.”
The school department’s projected fiscal year 2013 budget is $62 million. Included in that figure is $49.6 million of basic contractual obligations which include teacher contracts, pension increase, utilities and administration contracts.
Some of the possible reductions include custodial outsourcing, professional development reductions, bus service reductions, reduction in library teaching staff and reducing course offerings by raising class minimum enrollment.
Other ideas presented include the elimination of the fifth grade band and strings program, the elimination of after school academic support programs at both the middle schools and high school, the reduction of eight paraprofessional positions, the elimination of the late bus for both middle schools and high school and major reductions of both extra curricular activities and the district’s athletics program.
An informational sheet presented by Auger showed that, since 2004, the school district has eliminated 59.2 staff positions, has had major reductions in health co-pay percentages, has seen decreases in special education costs for out of district placements, closed two schools and increased revenue by $1.4 million, largely thanks to the relationship the district has with Jamestown.
Committee member Lynda Avanzato said the town has spent themselves into this situation and that better ideas need to be found.
“This is directed at our legislature,” she said. “We need some relief. There are so many laws that our hands are tied. There are so many mandates that it’s preventing us from cutting things.”
Council member Michael Bestwick asked Auger if the sale of Davisville Elementary School could be a short-term fix.
Auger said he didn’t see it as a big help right now but he suggested using the building as a community center and said he will further discuss the potential uses for the building at the School Committee meeting on Oct. 25.