COVENTRY — The Coventry Town Council this week voted 4-1 to adopt a Fiscal Year 2021 budget that makes sweeping cuts to department requests, included a reduction to the school district’s proposed budget that the superintendent has said will be “devastating” if ultimately passed by voters.
“[The 2021 budget] is pretty much identical to what you received last year,” said Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha, who has advocated amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis for keeping next year’s budget flat to avoid raising taxes.
“I think desperate times take desperate measures,” Town Council President Kerry McGee said Monday, agreeing with Warzycha’s proposed cuts. “I just think that, because of the times that we’re in, it’s a good thing that we’re trying to get some tax relief to the residents of the town of Coventry.”
If approved next month, the $107.2 million budget adopted Monday will result in an estimated tax rate for residential properties of $19.14 per $1,000 of value, and $22.97 per $1,000 for commercial properties. Around $29.3 million will be allocated to operations on the municipal side, with another $200,000 earmarked for capital.
The schools, meanwhile, will get $72.5 million for operations — despite the school district projecting expenditures totaling $74.3 million, even before factoring in COVID-19-related expenses.
Superintendent Craig Levis said he felt blindsided by Warzycha’s proposed budget.
“I’m disgusted,” Levis said Tuesday of the council’s decision to level fund the school district, adding that the result of level funding would likely be worse than the worst-case scenario presented during last year’s budget cycle.
Earlier this year — before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the budget process — the school committee voted unanimously for a spending plan that called for a 4 percent, or $1.8 million, increase in local appropriations to cover a reduction in state aid and various expenditure increases not related to COVID-19.
“We put forward a budget that we need,” Levis said. “Our budget would have helped us get through next year… this is going to make it extremely challenging.”
For months, Levis met regularly with Warzycha and the school and town finance directors on compiling a budget everyone could support. But after the pandemic took hold, Levis said, “communication started to break down.”
“We’ve done a phenomenal job working collaboratively with all of our stakeholders this year,” he said, adding that the school committee has tried to encourage dialogue around its proposed budget. “This does nothing but put us in a position that’s going to divide this community.”
Levis said he’s been disappointed by the town council’s apparent lack of interest in the school budget. What’s frustrating, he said, is that aside from councilor Ann Dickson, the council has been mostly quiet about the budget presented in the spring by the school committee.
“I’m just speechless in terms of what the thought process of the council is,” he continued.
Dickson was the only council member to oppose the town manager’s proposed budget Monday.
While she worries about the impact of level funding the municipal side of the budget, Dickson said she was particularly troubled by the proposal not to increase school funding. She said she worries that by level funding the district, it “won’t be able to rebuild.”
“I really believe that the schools will not have enough money to open,” Dickson said. “If we cannot support education, at least to a basic level, we have nothing.”
The school district is already projected to lose close to $900,000 in state aid, Dickson said, and is also now facing pricey state mandates related to the pandemic.
“The state has a reentry document for schools… and it is mind-boggling to read the requirements and the associated costs,” said Dickson, who added that although the district expects to receive an additional $747,197 from the state, it won’t be nearly enough.
Levis shares Dickson’s concerns.
“If the budget gets approved, I don’t know how we’re going to bounce back,” he said. “But what I can say is that it’ll have a very negative impact on our ability to open school.”
According to a projection by the national School Superintendents Association, schools on average will need to pay $1.7 million extra toward COVID-19 precautions, like additional nurses and custodians, extra buses and personal protective equipment (PPE).
That estimate is based on a school district with about 3,600 students.
“And our school [district] is larger than that,” Levis said. “We’re looking at probably a bare minimum of $2 million additional just to get students back in school.”
A task force of nearly 50 community members has begun working on three scenarios for reopening Coventry's schools on Aug. 31, along with cost estimates for each.
With all that in mind, Dickson on Monday proposed a budget amendment that would have appropriated $48.2 million from tax revenue to the schools — the budget proposed by Warzycha, and ultimately approved by the council, allocates $47 million from taxes to the district — for a total operating budget of $73.6 million.
The amendment would have given the schools a “modest” local increase of 2.5 percent, Dickson said.
“If I thought that we could get more, I would ask for the full amount,” she said.
Dickson added that she wished the school district had presented a budget reflective of the projected pandemic-related costs so that councilors could have a better picture of the need for funding.
“Without offering options it has been difficult for some council members to envision what a school without adequate funding will look like,” she said.
Councilor Gary Cote suggested the money saved in the 2020 budget by closing the schools could be applied to next year’s school expenditures.
Despite projections of some $1.4 million in savings for the current fiscal year, Levis said the district is still unsure how much it’ll have to pay the bus company for the current year. Plus, he said, any savings will be used to offset costs associated with COVID-19.
Warzycha said the council could also dip into the town’s rainy day fund, which is currently up to around $11 million, to help the schools pay for some of its added costs.
Still, Dickson responded, that wouldn’t cover any of the additional $1.8 million the district had requested.
“That’s a pre-COVID need of $1.8 million,” she said. “We don’t want to mix up what they need for their operating budget to get through the year, and what they need to handle this health crisis.”
Though he said he sympathizes with the district’s plight, Cote added his main concern lies with residents struggling to pay their taxes and with commercial property owners whose tenants have stopped paying rent.
“I know the school department was upfront and open and honest with us,” he said. “But we weren’t elected to protect the school department — we were elected to look out for the best interest of the taxpayers in the town of Coventry.”
He added that since “draconian changes” have been made on the municipal side of the 2021 budget, he couldn’t support an increase on the school side.
The town council ultimately stuck with Warzycha’s proposed budget, rejecting Dickson’s amendment by a 4-1 vote.
“Pre-COVID, I really supported the schools. I really did,” McGee said, before casting his vote against the amendment. “This was prior to everything that’s happening in this world right now, so for that reason, I have to help support the taxpayers and the businesses that are financially strapped right now.”
The council also voted 4-1 against an amendment proposed by councilor Debra Bacon that would have added $300,000 to the recreation department, which had more than $420,000 cut from its request, and $90,000 toward new cruisers for the police department, which is facing a $320,000 cut in 2021.
“I cannot support putting money toward recreation and two police vehicles and not putting it into the almost 5,000 students in our schools,” Dickson said. “If we are going to raise our taxes in any way whatsoever, we need to support our students.”
Coventry’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget will be presented during a joint financial town meeting on July 14, with an all-day budget referendum tentatively scheduled for July 16. McGee pointed out that legislation currently pending would allow councils this year to forgo putting budgets to a public vote.
“I personally think, because of the situation and where the manager’s requesting a zero-increased budget, that it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Town Council Vice President Greg Laboissonniere, Cote, Bacon and Dickson each spoke in favor of sticking to an all-day referendum.
“If we can stand in line and wait to get in WalMart, we can stand in line and wait to cast a vote at an all-day referendum,” Cote said. “This should be a voice of the people.”