The Westerly Sun

WOOD RIVER JCT. — Members of the Chariho School Committee voted Tuesday to approve a further reduction of the 2020-21 schools budget by reducing the district’s surplus, or fund balance, from its current level of 2.8% to 2%. 

The reduction lowered the total proposed budget by an additional $459,000 to $53.5 million, representing a 1.95% increase over the current spending plan. The contributions of the towns will now be .06% less than last year for Charlestown, an increase of 1.38% for Richmond and a 3.9% increase for Hopkinton. 

Hopkinton Town Council president Frank Landolfi, who was present for the vote, has been pushing the committee to find a way to reduce his town’s increase to below 4%, the maximum tax levy increase permitted by the state.

“We just need the relief and I’m just hopeful that you can do that for us. I’d really appreciate it,” he said.

Chariho has operated with a 2% fund balance in the past, but director of administration Susan Rogers warned that the district wouldn’t have much wiggle room.

“Everything other than salaries and benefits is actually down by $90,000, so salaries and benefits are 100% driving this budget and those are fixed,” she said. “If you find you have to add a teacher or all of a sudden something needs to be fixed, we don’t have a lot of play room. I just wanted to make sure that people understood that there’s very, very little room in this particular budget.”

Charlestown committee member Donna Chambers said she would not support the reduction.

“I would like to suggest that the towns that feel that this is such a heavy impact on their senior citizens, their lower income families, I would like to know that they do some things to give relief,” she said. “I do know Charlestown gives tax relief for people who are below a certain income level so they’re not burdened by the increase.”

Both Richmond and Hopkinton offer tax relief programs.

Hopkinton member Catherine Giusti said she would reluctantly support the fund balance reduction.

“That brings us down to about $1 million, plus or minus,” she said. “It costs more than $1 million a month to run Chariho and I’m going to again stress that this is kicking the problem down the road. We’re going to face this again and Hopkinton, we’re going to face this again next year.”

Craig Louzon of Charlestown agreed with Giusti that reducing towns’ tax burdens by cutting the fund balance was a measure that former Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci had warned could not continue indefinitely.

“We’ve been at 2% before many times, but I agree with you,” he said. “Mr. Ricci warned us about this seven or eight years ago and it’s come to roost now. But it’s a political compromise.”

Louzon also made a motion, which the committee approved, to restore a behavioral management assistant’s position to Richmond school, which added $60,000 back into the budget.

The School Committee is expected to adopt the budget at its March 17 meeting, and the budget referendum is on April 14.

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4

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