COVENTRY — Once again, the Fiscal Year 2021 budget presented to voters in Coventry was defeated this week — and this time, it looks like level funding will stick.
Just 2,464, or around 9 percent, of Coventry’s some 25,000 registered voters turned out for Thursday’s all-day referendum, with 1,159 voting for the proposed $109.2 million budget and 1,305 opposing it.
On the municipal side, the proposed additional $225,000 in local appropriations would have supported a few new positions, as well as overdue raises for non-union employees. While Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha said Tuesday that the town would be OK without that additional funding, he added that Coventry Public Schools would struggle were it to be denied the extra $1.2 million that the proposed budget had allocated for it.
Coventry Supt. Craig Levis said Friday that he was disappointed by the results of the vote, but that after the first two budget referendums he wasn’t all that surprised.
“I really feel bad for our students and our staff, who give 100 percent every single day — especially during the pandemic,” Levis said.
This was the third time since July that Coventry residents have rejected the budget presented to them for the fiscal year that began on July 1. First, a level-funded budget was turned down; then, voters opposed a budget that would have increased the tax levy by 4 percent.
The latest rejected budget would have increased the tax levy by nearly 1.9 percent, resulting in an approximately 38-cent tax rate increase per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or around $112 more per year on a $300,000 house. That’s a tax increase of around $9 monthly, Levis pointed out.
“We have many families that have students in our schools; we have many, many community members that have gone through the schools,” he continued. “To pick this time in history to turn your back on a community, to me it’s just unimaginable.”
Schools in Coventry have been operating month-to-month since July off of their 2020 appropriation. Warzycha said during this week’s Financial Town Meeting that Thursday’s referendum would likely be the town’s final attempt to adopt a budget for 2021, and without any additional local funding, Levis said the schools are looking at beginning 2022 with a significant shortfall.
“It’s going to be challenging for this year, but extremely challenging for next year’s budget,” said Levis, who added that it’s important for people to understand “how did we get here?”
Schools in Coventry were level funded for several years, according to a presentation last month by School Finance Director Sarah Mangiarelli.
Local appropriations to the schools only rose by around $1 million, or just above 2.5 percent, between 2009 and 2016, while expenditures in areas like healthcare and contractual obligations continually increased. Coventry was also receiving more state aid after years of being underfunded, but Mangiarelli said that shouldn’t have impacted local funding.
“It’s pretty obvious how we got into this situation,” Levis said. “Moving forward, we need the support of this community.”
Now, the district will be beginning 2022 at 2020’s funding level, and it can only legally increase its base by 4 percent each year. And even if the schools do receive the maximum increase next year, Levis suspects that “[won’t] come close” to being enough to meet the district’s needs.
“People think we can just cut our way out of this,” he said, “but we have a responsibility to provide a certain level of services and supports to students.”
The district notified the state Auditor General on Friday that the budget failed and that it may run a deficit this year, although Levis said it remains to be seen whether there will, in fact, be a deficit.
“We’ll have to see what the next steps are,” he added. “We do need to run schools, and we will need to fund it, and how that happens, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Levis said he plans to request money from the town to cover some of the expenses related to COVID-19, which go above and beyond normal operating expenses. Savings of approximately $1.2 million from Fiscal Year 2020 were intended to be used to offset those expenses, but now those funds will need to go toward operations.
He's also eager to learn what kind of federal assistance the district will get to help in covering those pandemic-related costs.
Levis added that it’s disheartening to again see such low participation in this week's referendum — turnout was low in the first two referendums, as well, with 2,034 residents casting ballots in July and 2,919 participating in October.
Still, based on the recent dialogue between the School Committee and the new Town Council, Levis said that despite the challenges ahead, he has hope.
“I think there are some deep-seated issues in this community that I’m very hopeful that this current council, working with the School Committee, will address,” he said. “There’s a lot of lack of trust in how business is done here, and I want to be part of the solution.”
Like Levis, Town Council President Ann Dickson said she was “disappointed but not surprised by the budget referendum results,” and acknowledged that there are some longstanding problems that need to be worked out.
Noting that the budget was defeated by only 5 percent of the town’s eligible voters, Dickson added that the low community engagement “is a symptom of deeper issues."
“Residents have legitimate economic, social and health concerns. Residents are questioning what their government can do for them and what it is doing to them,” she said Friday in an email.
“I sense voter anger, not only at the national and state level, but also at the local level,” she continued. “I daily hear about these local issues: increases in property assessments, sewer assessments, dropping water levels in Johnson’s Pond, Kent County Water Authority water bills, flicker and noise issues relating to the wind turbines, sewer rate increases, lack of plan for vaccinations, limitations on travel and assembly — and this is just the short list.”
She added that voters want a government that’s accountable, and that until they can see their tax dollars being used wisely and “for their individual good,” community engagement will remain low and “community good will lag."
“The new council members are articulate and professional men and women who are forward-thinking and understand the importance of accountability,” Dickson said. “They are ready to work to rebuild the Coventry community. They need support and feedback from residents. Send your comments to your council members; work with us to rebuild Coventry.”
Town Council Vice President Jennifer Ludwig also mentioned the value of resident input, and added that she’s “confident we will get through" this trying time.
“We need voters to provide their specific feedback about what they want to see in their community, and what they will approve,” she wrote in an email Friday, adding that residents can either reach out directly to their council representatives or share their concerns during a public comment period.
Councilor Kimberly Shockley, who said she fully supported the proposed budget, added that her focus now is on next year’s budget and on meeting residents’ requests for the town to have a performance audit conducted.
“If people know of misspending I hope they speak out — so far there has been a lot of conjecture, but no facts,” Shockley said. “I am more than willing to work with the council on looking down all avenues for the 21/22 budget.”
Levis said he, too, is in favor of having an audit done.
“I’d welcome it,” he said. “I think, more than ever, that’s the most important thing we could do right now. We’ve never had anything to hide, and we want to be transparent.”
The rejected budget didn’t include funding for a performance audit, but Warzycha said last month that there may be other options for paying for it.
Levis also lauded the new council for its willingness to put in the effort to ensure Coventry, and its school district, can thrive in the future.
“We’ve got a huge hurdle for next year; we’ve got significant issues that we’re dealing with right now,” he said, “but, long term, I do believe that the leadership will set us on the right course.”