WOOD RIVER JCT. — Facing higher property taxes resulting from a school budget that increases every year, two of the three Chariho towns told the School Committee at Wednesday’s Omnibus meeting that they just couldn’t shoulder another large hike in their contributions to the school district.
The annual Omnibus meeting, a requirement of the Chariho Act, is an opportunity for state and local legislators and the public to learn about and discuss the proposed school budget.
The proposed fiscal year 2021 spending plan is $55.2 million, a 5.1 percent increase over the current year’s budget of $52.4 million.
The contributions of all three towns will increase, according to each town’s enrollment. Charlestown’s share of the budget will increase by 3.1 percent, Richmond’s will increase by 4.6 percent and Hopkinton is facing the greatest increase, 7.1 percent. After factoring in state aid, which each town will receive, Charlestown will end up contributing $13.7 million, Richmond will pay $20.7 million and Hopkinton, which will receive the most state aid, will also pay $20.7 million.
Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi said substantial budget reductions would have to be made for his town to keep its property tax increase at or below the 4 percent allowed by the state.
“Obviously, I don’t think any of us in Hopkinton are pleased with this increase or what the impact is for our taxpayers,” he said. “I had our finance director back into what decreases were needed from the school budget to keep us at 4 percent or less and it’s about $1,337,000.”
The two largest contributing factors to the increase are salaries and benefits. Teachers will be receiving a 2.5 percent increase in addition to their step increases. Health insurance costs have risen by 8 percent and dental insurance is up by 2 percent.
The fund balance, or surplus, which according to district policy must be between 2 and 4 percent, is 3 percent, or $1.15 million.
Landolfi said he wanted more details on the district’s salary and health care costs. “I’d really appreciate it, I guess, if some of these bullet points were monetized,” he said.
Landolfi also asked for a breakdown of contractual and discretionary salary and health care costs.
In addition to several members from each of the three town councils, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, whose district includes part of Charlestown; Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Ashaway; and Rep. Brian Kennedy, D-Westerly (whose district includes Hopkinton); answered questions regarding state legislation that might benefit the school district.
Algiere warned that the state is facing a large deficit. “It’s going to be a difficult budget year this year,” he said. “We’re looking at a $200 million budget deficit and there’s a lot of expenses and revenues, while they’re somewhat strong, the expenses are very high. So it’s going to be a challenging year this year.”
Algiere said he would continue to advocate on behalf of the district. “We’ll continue in our efforts to make sure you get your fair share, whatever we can do to help,” he said. “What we do need is communication. It’s very important … Let us know what you need from us. Don’t wait till the last minute.”
With the recent death of Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci, Morgan urged the district to hire an outside management consultant and an independent auditor.
“On behalf of Richmond and Hopkinton, we would like to see an outside financial audit and also a management study,” she said. “This hadn’t been done in quite some time and I think that with the new leadership coming in, we should possibly look at that.”
Kennedy said he was waiting for the new state budget, which will determine the amounts and types of aid the schools will receive.
“We’re expecting that the budget itself is supposed drop sometime the end of next week,” he said. “So we’ll have a better clue as to what she [Gov. Gina Raimondo] anticipates doing this year for school, education aid, what she’s going to do with the regional transportation money that I’ve had to lobby year after year for.”
Hopkinton Town Council member Barbara Capalbo said she expected the district to reduce the spending plan by $1.6 million and she provided examples of areas where she believed the district could make sizable cuts.
“The suggestions for cutting that would obviously be to reduce the fund balance from 3 percent to 2 percent, to reduce the health projected increases from 8 percent to 5 percent,” she said.
Capalbo also proposed reducing the superintendent’s salary from the budgeted $170,000 to $150,000. “Barry earned every penny of that money and he would get $170,000, but I think the new person has to earn their way in, because he’s done the heavy lifting.”
Landolfi proposed taking another look at changing the enrollment-based funding formula to one that would use rolling enrollment averages, thereby eliminating the sharp increases that the towns currently face if their enrollment in the district goes up.
Richmond Town Administrator Karen Pinch said her town would be interested in exploring Landolfi’s proposal.
“We would definitely be interested in discussing a rolling average,” she said.
Charlestown balked at the idea. “There’s a reluctance to change. There’s so much to change,” council president Virginia Lee said.
Landolfi replied, “I know what position you’re in. I get it. We’re obviously not in that position, so I guess we have to go to court or something to change it, because we can’t sustain these increases. We’re just looking for some help.”
The School Committee will hold two more public budget workshops next week, during which members are expected to begin making cuts.