EAST GREENWICH – The East Greenwich School Committee on Tuesday voted to adopt the FY 2021 budget for the school department, which totaled roughly $42 million, with a requested 3.85 percent increase in town appropriation. While the committee ultimately approved the budget by a 6 to 1 vote, members discussed the possibility of having to alter the budget before the final adoption in June, depending on the ramifications the COVID-19 pandemic has on town revenue and state aid.
School committee chair Carolyn Mark opened the discussion by saying that, while this was an important step in the process, the committee would still be meeting with the town council next month before the budget is finalized in June, allowing members to continue discussions and make further changes.
“While we’ve been at our budget process for quite some time now, this is still a step in the process,” Mark said. “There is obviously the process we need to go through with the town council, they are likely to approve a town wide budget toward the end of June, at which point we may come back to finalize our budget, depending on what the appropriation was.”
“This is when we communicate to the town and town council what the needs are of the school district going into the next school year,” she continued.
Incoming superintendent Alexis Meyer broke down the budget presentation, detailing requests and revenue, as well as suggestions for cuts to make up for a projected shortfall.
While revenue primarily stemmed from the requested appropriation from the town ($37.8 million), it also came from state aid ($3.4 million) and various other sources, such as Medicare, tuition and fundraising, among others. The vast majority of requests covered personnel expenses ($34.1 million), though it also covered administrative funding ($6.7 million), workers compensation ($210,000) and transportation ($2 million).
Budget requests totaled roughly $43.1 million, while projected revenue came in at around $41.9 million, with the 3.85 percent increase in the town appropriation. Meyer also detailed a shortfall in this fiscal year’s budget of roughly $510,000, which also had to be made up for in the FY2021 budget.
In order to make up for the projected shortfall between requests and revenue, Meyer proposed several cuts to the requests.
Meyer suggested that the committee remove 1.8 positions at Cole Middle School, one position at the high school, three paraprofessional positions who are retirees and one information technology position. Meyer also proposed using retirement savings to help make up for the shortfall.
Further recommendations included cutting student private tuitions by $150,000, technology equipment by $100,000, and administrations by $23,000, while using additional surplus funds of more than $500,000 to close the gap.
With the cuts and the use of surplus funds, Meyer’s presented budget totaled roughly $42 million, meeting the amount of projected revenue.
Though the budget was balanced as presented, several committee members discussed the many COVID-19-related uncertainties regarding aspects of funding, including the town’s projected loss in revenue and the amount of money the district will receive in state aid.
While committee member Jeff Dronzek pointed out that the town council would likely not be able to grant the school department’s request of a 3.85 percent increase in town appropriation, the committee was facing a deadline to pass its initial budget.
Dronzek suggested that the committee approve its budget, and then discuss it further with the town council, while remaining open to potential changes in the future when the economic circumstances are better understood.
“We don’t know a lot, and we need time, but we have an obligation on the town charter to give a number,” he said. “My suggestion is, we get a number forward and really work together with the town as we start to get more information, and be open about any changes we can make as we go through it.”
“There’s a virtually guaranteed chance that they’re not going to be able to afford to give us what we ideally need, so we’re going to have to figure out how to cut it back,” he continued. “A lot of that could come from reserves, given the economic distress, but we don’t know what additional reserves we’re going to have yet. It’s a lot of unknowns in an unusual circumstance.”
Dronzek also pointed to additional surplus funds the department could be seeing from savings in transportation costs and from school closures, which could be used to make up for additional funding, if needed.
Mark agreed with Dronzek, adding that the committee could make further changes to the budget, and will have several opportunities to do so in May and June.
“This isn’t our only bite at the apple, this is a step in the process,” she said. “We will be able to continue being in close communication with the town, we’ll have an opportunity to have a joint conversation with them.”
“Ultimately, they will make an appropriation that they feel is something they’re able to do and is appropriate,” she continued. “We’ll have an opportunity to reconvene once we have that to finalize our budget going into the next year. It’s always challenging having to adopt the budget as early in spring as we have to do, according to the town charter. We never have complete information, and I think this is a year where we have even less information than we have had in the past.”
And during the public comment portion of the meeting, town manager Andy Nota Nota assured committee members that the council would be working with them to find all available funding, especially if the $3.4 million in projected state aid is reduced.
“You have my word that we’re going to continue to work on the entire community’s behalf to try to stabilize and look for reductions, look for increased revenue, look for expenditure reductions,” he said.
“Our communication channels are open, should we have to take action if, for some reason, you were to lose a million dollars in [state] aid,” he continued.
He also said he was advocating for municipal leaders to be a part of the process of deciding how to allocate the $1.25 billion Rhode Island received as part of the CARES Act, a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Senate. Nota said that those funds should play a role in reducing the stress being felt from the economic effects of the pandemic.
However, committee member Anne Musella pointed out that the committee technically had until April 29 to approve its budget, and, with the various uncertainties, should take as much time as allowed before submitting a budget to the town council.
“I’m just a little bit uncomfortable because I feel like, even though there are some unknowns, I feel like given some time, we might have the opportunity to get a better grasp on some of the numbers that are knowable,” she said.
While she commended the work of employees in putting everything together, she said she couldn’t vote in favor of approving the budget.
“This is not a criticism of the process or our employees efforts, it’s just we have the extra time and considering the extreme circumstances, I just don’t see why we can’t schedule another meeting in a week or so to be able to dive a little deeper,” she said.
Mark said that, while the committee could schedule an additional meeting and wait for more information to come in before approving the budget, she added that the questions she had were “big picture questions,” and likely wouldn’t be answered by April 29.
“We could schedule another meeting but in my view, that would be necessary if there were a lot of questions that members of the committee felt they needed answers for before they could move forward,” she said. “Many of the questions I have are not going to be answered by April 29, because they’re really the big picture questions.”
The committee voted in favor of approving the budget and sending it to the town council by a 6 to 1 vote.
“I know that is a collaboration that will continue in the coming weeks, and there will be several more deciding points along the way before we get to what our town budget is going to look like overall,” Mark said.
Nota will present the overall budget–including the town and the school department’s budgets–on May 15, with a public hearing and a joint meeting between the school committee and council to follow.