COVENTRY — Two months after rejecting the municipal budget originally proposed to them, voters in Coventry will head to the polls again today to let their voices be heard regarding an alternate budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
After its first proposed budget was turned down during May’s all-day referendum, the Coventry Town Council got to work chipping away at its original budget in hopes of creating one that residents would support.
The $114 million budget adopted by the council last month represents a decrease of approximately $336,000 from the failed budget, and includes a 2.3 percent tax levy increase over 2022. It would result in a residential tax rate of $19.57 per $1,000 of valuation — a 10 cent drop from what had been proposed — and a commercial rate of $23.59.
Someone with a home valued at $350,000 could expect to see a tax increase of $59.05 annually, or around $5 per month.
Among other things, the proposed budget would restore funding that was cut from the parks and recreation department after the pandemic hit, maintain operations, invest $955,000 in capital improvements, and allocate $234,148 to be used to address unforeseen expenses.
In amending its original budget, one area where the town council chose not to make cuts was in its appropriation to the Coventry Public Schools.
On the school side, which makes up around 69 percent of the overall budget, the proposed $50 million appropriation from local taxes would help maintain all sports and activities while investing $1.2 million in the district's facilities.
When the Fiscal Year 2023 budget process began last year, the school district anticipated it would need a local appropriation increase of around 9 percent, due largely to several unavoidable increases as well as the state requirement that 3 percent of its operating budget go to maintenance.
“We’ve narrowed that down to a 2.86 percent [local appropriation increase], which is well below the inflation rate,” Supt. Craig Levis said in a phone interview Tuesday.
That was accomplished in part by implementing a number of cost-saving measures. The district also has striven to use its pandemic relief funds strategically in order to offset its local appropriation, Levis said.
“Coming out of the pandemic, I think we’ve used our federal funds efficiently to address the needs that our students, our families and our staff have,” he said, “and that’s crucial.”
The federal funds have been used to purchase Chromebooks, for example, to improve cybersecurity, to purchase high-quality curriculum materials, and to address the social-emotional needs and learning loss fueled by the pandemic.
After many months of distance learning, the learning loss among students was significant, Asst. Supt. Don Cowart said Tuesday.
“When we had the opportunity to invest money, we invested it in the students,” Cowart said, adding that the relief funds have been put toward “improving the quality of the education and the experience kids have in schools.”
Interventionist positions were created to assist at-risk students, he said, and summer programs were established to address social-emotional as well as academic learning loss.
In addition to investing in facilities and maintaining extracurriculars, the budget being voted on this week would fund various school safety improvements, using the district’s approximately $900,000 state aid increase to address needs brought to light by a recent survey of each of the district 's buildings.
Following the deadly shooting in May at a Texas elementary school, the school district and local police conducted a site survey of Coventry’s seven school buildings.
“We have identified some areas of incredible need,” Levis said, noting that many of the district’s buildings are at least 60 years old. “After what happened in Texas, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can do.”
There are surveillance cameras needed at the elementary schools, outside doors that need replacement, and communications systems that need to be implemented, among other things.
During a recent meeting, the Coventry School Committee approved using the district’s additional $904,000 in state aid to make those improvements. But if the budget fails, Levis said, then those funds will need to be used for operations.
The instability that surrounds each budget season in Coventry has posed many challenges, said Cowart, who added that he hopes to encourage participation in tomorrow’s referendum.
“We love the fact that so many people are moving to Coventry,” Cowart said. “People are coming here, and I think they’re coming here with an expectation that their kids are going to have a good, well-rounded learning experience.”
But for a district to perform well requires investment, he said, adding that nearly every school district in Rhode Island that’s currently performing above Coventry spends more than Coventry does per pupil.
At $16,873, Coventry spends among the lowest per pupil in the state — the town ranks 47 out of 63 districts statewide on its expenditure per student.
“You can only go so far on a certain level of investment before you hit a wall,” Cowart said. “The communities that are above us and thriving… they’re investing more.”
Only 1,536 of Coventry’s approximately 26,000 registered voters participated in the May 26 budget referendum, with fewer than 100 votes determining the outcome. School and town officials have been working since to ensure a better turnout this time around.
“It’s not our job to tell people how to vote, it’s our job to make sure people know when to vote and where to vote,” Cowart said, “and to give them all the information they need to make a good, educated decision when they go to the voting booth.”
Coventry residents can vote for the proposed $114 million FY23 budget between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday at the following polling locations:
District 1: St. Francis Church, 132 Peckham St., Coventry
District 2: Town Council Chambers, 1670 Flat River Road, Coventry
District 3: Club Jogues, 184 Boston St., Coventry
District 4: Coventry Senior Center, 50 Wood St., Coventry
District 5: Westwood Estates Clubhouse, 1A Liena Rose Way, Coventry