athornebrooke@ricentral.com

EAST GREENWICH—The school committee held discussions on Tuesday to hear the budget requests of its various principals and prepare for the final budgetary cram that will inevitably ensue before April 15. If all current requests are taken into the final ask of the town, the school budget for the district is likely to come close to the maximum four percent increase in yearly funding. East Greenwich High School principal Michael Podraza spoke to the importance of the increases.

“The items listed here as discretionary are anything but,” Podraza said. “Without these, we cannot make the school go.”

Podraza outlined how the budget has been largely stagnant despite a constant growth in total enrollment across the district. During the 2016/17 school year, high school enrollment was 709, and during that year the budget was temporarily frozen. When the budget was carried over via level-funding the next year, it was built off of the previous frozen amount. Now, despite the increase in last year’s budget, the district is struggling to make ends meet due to rising enrollment, field trip costs and big expenses such as furniture replacement.

“We now have 781 students. For 2021, East Greenwich High School’s projected enrollment is 831. An increase of 122 students [since the budget freeze of 16/17],” Podraza said. “As Dr. Mercurio said, ‘business is good.’ However, on a budget that was essentially cut in 16/17, and then had discretionary lines that needed to be cut again for consecutive years, we are grateful for any increase. But this is why my department chairs and myself are not bashful in telling you that what we need in our discretionary funding, is based on what our children deserve.”

Reflecting on the impact that the budget freeze of 2016/17 has had to date, Podraza could not help but highlight how the effects of that year mirror those of actual budget cuts.

“We called that level-funding,” Podraza said, “But for our discretionary funds, it was anything but.”

Despite the hardships that have stemmed out of the previous half-decade’s budgetary processes, the likely budget request from the district may be more than local taxpayers can bear. Last year’s $39.5 million school budget was a 2.88 percent increase over the previous year, not including the $5 million bond that the town took out to support school improvements. State law limits annual increases to four percent. With well over $1.5 million in additional recommended requests from the schools and departments this year, if it chooses to include all requests, the school committee will be seeking to get as close to that four percent maximum as possible.

Among the biggest increases in budget requests as a comparative value to last year’s requests are the East Greenwich High School and Eldredge Elementary, which are requesting a 29 percent and 97 percent increase in funding respectively. Those numbers are somewhat inflated, however, as they aim to accommodate the funding of field trips now required by state law. Responding to a public comment about the lack of PTG (parent-teacher groups) input on the budgeting process, school committee member Matt Plain commented on the importance of the current budgeting request process and raising the district’s request to accommodate such costs.

“We need to know how much our programs actually cost. And without an accurate and valid accounting of that, we don’t know how much our comprehensive program costs,” Plain said. “This is the amount of money we need to meet our programmatic, contractual, statutory and regulatory needs.”

“When the town council says ‘how come we are looking at a budget that is in excess of what we provided you last year?’ We’ll be able to say that this is actually what our programs cost,” Plain added. “We didn’t have an accurate accounting of what it cost, because we didn’t have the fees and expenses that we’ve been passing along to families [until now]. Now we have them. This is what is costs. And I believe that our position will not be ‘this is what we would like,’ but ‘this is what you must give us so that we can carry out these programs.’”

The school committee will hold a budget hearing on March 24.

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