EAST GREENWICH – On Tuesday, the East Greenwich School Committee continued discussions of the FY2021 school budget, with much of the talks surrounding how to make up for a projected shortfall.
While the revenue for the next fiscal year is projected to be roughly $41.4 million, the projected expenses, based on requests, totaled nearly $43.5 million, leaving an over $2 million budget shortfall.
During Tuesday’s meeting, interim superintendent Frank Pallotta presented the committee with a proposed budget, including suggested cuts in order to get the requested expenses down to meet the projected revenue.
Pallotta’s proposed budget totaled $41,416,990, and included a 2.9 percent increase in town appropriation, however the committee will continue discussion on the budget at its next meeting, where further changes could be recommended before a vote is ultimately taken.
As presented by Pallotta, the requested budget included salaries and benefits ($34.4 million), student services ($2.4 million), teaching and learning ($244,813), technology ($602,200), administration ($2.8 million), athletics ($270,931), schools ($772,866) and facilities ($1.8 million), totaling $43,467,457.
While the vast majority of revenue comes from the town appropriation ($37.4 million), it also stems from projected state aid ($3.4 million), Medicaid ($385,000) and miscellaneous revenue ($269,719).
In order to get the budget down to meet the projected revenue of roughly $41.4 million, Pallotta also suggested several cuts, removing several unfilled positions and moving items to the surplus, among other recommended actions. Pallotta also recommended that the committee request the establishment of a restricted fund account of $500,000 for special education tuition, only to be used if tuitions exceed the budget.
“To make up the difference of the shortfall, I recommended an innovative approach to try to balance the budget by having the town set up an account of $500,000,” Pallotta said.
He said that, while the restricted fund was a “point of controversy,” it would allow the town to move forward with a balanced budget and a 2.9 percent increase.
“It is an issue, however, asking the town to set up that special account for special education tuitions allows us to move forward with a balanced budget,” he said.
He also said that, if the town approved the restricted fund, it would be used as a “safety net,” and would not be included in the town appropriation.
Along with the $500,000 restricted fund, Pallotta’s recommended cuts would bring the budget down to meet projected revenue and keep the increase to town appropriation at 2.9 percent, well below the 4 percent cap set by state law.
Committee member Alyson Powell said that, because the school department required at least a 4 percent increase to meet all of its needs, the committee should enter discussions with the town by requesting the maximum increase as allowed by the state.
“I know we’re already kneecapped by state laws that say we can’t ask for more than 4 percent in any given year,” Powell said. “But it seems to me, from all the budget presentations, that we could use at least 4 percent, if not more.”
She also pointed out that 2 percent of the increase was already devoted to contractual increases in salaries, which would leave the administration with a .9 percent increase in discretionary funding.
Powell went on to say that even if the department didn’t get the full 4 percent request, at least the committee could present its argument for why a maximum increase was needed, adding that it behooved the committee to “paint a clearer picture” of what the school department actually needed, even if the entire funding wasn’t granted.
“If we have a good argument for the need, why don’t we ask for it all?” she asked.
Committee chair Carolyn Mark pointed out that, if the town was not amenable to the $500,000 restricted fund and it was moved back into the school department’s operational budget, the increase would be closer to 4 percent.
“If we moved the $500,000 into our request, we would be looking at a request to the town around 4 percent,” Mark said. “If the town is not amenable to setting that aside […] and you add the $500,000 to the 2.9 percent increase, you are at 4 percent and you haven’t left anything on the table.”
Committee member Jeff Dronzek pointed out that, because the town would most likely lose revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee should work with the town to draw up a budget that was “amenable to them.”
“It doesn’t matter what we absolutely think we need, the town is not going to have much to give,” Dronzek said. “We have a massive problem right now. They’re going to lose revenue. It’s just an absolute, they’re not going to have the flex to give us something.”
“I would say that we do a lot over the next couple weeks to work with the town ahead of time to try to craft something that’s amenable to them,” he continued.
Dronzek added that the committee could consider moving funds from student activity accounts to the operational budget, as well as moving funds from the reserve to the budget, in order to help make up for projected loss in the town’s revenue.
And committee member Anne Musella agreed with Dronzek, suggesting that the committee look further into whether funds could be moved from student activity accounts to the operational budget.
“We do have an obligation to explore every opportunity, and we’ve never as a body or a district delved into student activity accounts,” Musella said. “We’re not supposed to co-mingle student activity funds with operating funds, but given our past practice, can we do some research and make an appropriate one-time transfer out of certain accounts?”
She suggested that the accounts could be used for activities that are already in the operating budget, such as field trips, music and athletics.
Dronzek went on to say that the three members of the school committee who sit on the finance committee should work with Pallotta to try to get the budget to a place “where we think is reasonable.”
Musella added that the town solicitor should also be part of the conversation to provide guidance about which funds can be transferred where.
And Mark said that, going into the next school committee meeting, she would like an update on whether the town was amenable to the $500,000 restricted fund for special education tuition. If not, she added, the funds would have to be put back into the operational budget, raising the requested increase in town appropriation to 4 percent.
“What I would like coming into the next meeting is updates on discussions with the town and whether they’re amenable to [the restricted fund], or whether it needs to be part of our core operating budget,” Mark said.
The school committee will continue discussions on, and possibly adopt, the budget at its next meeting on April 21.