SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The School Committee adopted its budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday, which if approved by the council, will mean appropriation increases of 1.89 percent.
According to Chief Financial Officer Raquel Pellerin, the overall budget increase of 2.8 percent will amount to a little more than $1.5 million in spending from one year to the next. Pellerin said this year’s municipal appropriation request of $57,053,074 was largely driven by contractual increases, and is about a million dollars more than last year’s request.
As Superintendent Linda Savastano pointed out, the majority of school funding comes from the town, though much smaller revenue sources like state aid and grant programs will also help cover the district’s $67,079,680 budget. That number, she said, is directly tied to fiscal and educational goals.
The proposed budget document emphasizes that for the district to “sustain and move forward with excellence for all children, the request is an essential request.”
“While this budget does reallocate staff and has a reduction in supplies, it ensures that we keep the dollars as close to our students as possible,” the document reads.
Multiple members of the school committee expressed their concerns and reservations about requesting additional funding from the town council, however, given the widespread financial hardship brought on by the pandemic.
Support for the budget narrowly passed, 4-3, with school committee members Melissa Boyd, Kate Macinanti and Michelle Brousseau casting the dissenting votes.
“I acknowledge that the requests made are valid and vitally important, but I was to talk a little bit about the process,” Boyd told her fellow committee members at the onset of the budget discussion.
While she can support these increases as a parent, Boyd said she struggles in her role as an elected official to ask for them. She questioned if the committee would be bringing the council the best possible budget, and if there were any other options or solutions on the table that hadn’t been fully explored. One of the suggestions Boyd offered was looking at staffing numbers.
“We need to support all of our learning needs, but we are heavy on staffing and our enrollment continues to drop,” Boyd said, suggesting the committee begin exploring painful conversations around reductions.
Macinanti echoed similar concerns about coming forward with a request for increased spending, especially when the school district will be asking the community to consider an $85 million facilities bond question in a few months time.
Another area of concern for Macinanti was funds being channeled towards expanding programmatic pillars, like STEM, rather than taking this year to focus their efforts behind other critical areas of instruction — like social-emotional learning and mental health.
School committee member Paula Whitford, who expressed her wholehearted support for the budget, asked Macinanti if she would be able to support the budget if the current ask of the town council did not include expanding upon any programs. She emphasized a need to close, long-existing learning gaps and a moral obligation to the children.
“Every year, there’s going to be an increase in the budget,” Whitford said.
Macinanti agreed that widening learning gaps have been a long, ongoing problem in South Kingstown, though she also pointed out that “we get more money every year, but the problem still sits.”
In response to comments about addressing staffing numbers, school committee member Sarah Markey stated that district administration had not made any recommendations for this. Earlier in the evening, Savastano also pointed out that the pandemic has forced increases to the number of full-time employees needed to keep students in the classroom.
“While I think it would be really politically convenient to have a 0 percent budget, that wouldn’t be very good for students,” Markey said.
During all her years on the committee, Brousseau said she has never made a decision for political reasons.
“I have only voted on things that have put the needs of the students first,” she said, and that her reasons for not supporting the budget were because of an inability to wrap her mind around an increase of nearly 2 percent.
School Committee Vice Chair Christie Fish made a word of warning to her fellow members against language that might make villains of those with differing opinions, and emphasizes the importance of having multiple voices and preserves at the table.
While Fish said she saw things a bit differently than Boyd and Macinanti, she still respected their work on the budget committee.
“Although I wish all of us could go in with the same vote, I think it’s okay and actually good, that we can have these conversations and say we don’t all agree,” Fish said, continuing to warn against creating an “us versus them mentality.”
School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey echoed these sentiments, acknowledging that everyone on the committee is there because they care about the children of the district.
One of her other points of discussion, however, was that some programmatic expansions are being embraced at the moment to help create equity within the district, and that there’s a demonstrated need for this level of spending. She acknowledged the less than ideal timing for many of the problems the district is facing, but asked her fellow committee members to remember that none of this was the fault of the students.
“It’s not the kids fault that they’ve had learning loss in broken buildings during a pandemic,” she said.
Pellerin highlighted ongoing efforts to reduce spending during this particularly challenging year, such as prioritizing purchases, leveraging the fund balance or delaying purchases altogether until other revenue sources can be found. She stressed that the district has been “really strategic” with its spending, especially when it comes to funding supplies and equipment.
“We really take a pause to see if there’s any other funding sources to get them into the hands of the students,” Pellerin said.
The school committee and the town council are set to meet for the first of three budget work sessions on March 3.