EXETER – On Monday, town officials discussed a nearly $900,000 reduction in projected state aid for the Exeter-West Greenwich school district, a significant cut to the district’s operating budget. The discussion took place during this week’s Exeter Town Council meeting, with both council and school committee members expressing concern over the reduction.  

In November, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) announced how much state aid each school district would receive going into the fiscal year 2021. According to RIDE, Exeter-West Greenwich’s state aid would be reduced by a roughly $870,000 loss compared to last year’s amount. The cut amounts to the largest reduction to a school district’s state aid in Rhode Island.

The discussion on Monday stemmed from a letter the Exeter Town Council received from Teri Donovan, an Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee member, which outlined the “devastating” consequences of the reduction in state aid.

Donovan also urged members of the council to attend an upcoming meeting with RIDE commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. And while the scheduled meeting with Infante-Green, which is open to all municipal leaders in the state, will be centered around a new school absenteeism initiative, Donovan said that Exeter and West Greenwich officials should use it as an opportunity to make their concerns known.  

“Since the Exeter/West Greenwich School District has been notified that we will be losing $870,471 in state aid in fiscal year 2021, I believe it is imperative that we take this and every other opportunity to convey how devastating this is to our communities,” Donovan wrote to the council.

Donovan also pointed out that, before this latest projected cut, Exeter had lost approximately $1.7 million in state aid over the past nine years.

“After next year, when we are hit with the additional $870,000 loss in state aid, we will have given up in excess of $2.5 million in state aid,” she wrote. “That lost funding has been absorbed by the local taxpayers.”

The reduction, she continued, would make it “impossible” to meet the needs of the school district while adhering to the 4 percent increase cap on the annual operating budget.

“It’s impossible for our school district and supporting communities to meet the mandated maintenance of effort, contractual obligations, health care increases, and infrastructure support while still adhering to the 4 percent cap,” she said. “These reductions are crippling.”

Because Exeter and West Greenwich have “always met their municipal obligation to the school budget,” Donovan said, the reduction to the school district’s state aid represents an inequitable formula for distribution.

“The funding formula is terribly inequitable,” she said. “Although Exeter and West Greenwich have always met their municipal obligation to the school budget, other municipalities have not. Of course, districts like ours bear the consequences of their disregard.”

She also highlighted the “detrimental” effects charter schools have had on the Exeter-West Greenwich school district.

“Charter schools are also having a detrimental financial impact. When a student leaves a traditional public school for a charter, that per-pupil funding follows the student to the charter,” she said. “The school district, however, still has to pay for busing, utilities, maintenance and other expenses that can’t be eliminated because they are school-wide.”

Donovan’s letter ended by requesting that both Exeter and West Greenwich Town Councils send representatives to the upcoming meeting with Infante-Green, which school committee members and the administration plan to attend.  

“For these and many more reasons, the commissioner needs to hear from us,” Donovan concluded. “Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee members and administration plan to attend this meeting. We are hoping both communities will send representatives as well.”

After Exeter Town Council President Cal Ellis finished reading Donovan’s letter to the rest of the council and public, the group continued to discuss the issue.

Ellis began by urging members of the council to attend the meeting with Infante-Green to talk about “inadequate school formula funding.”  

“[The reduction] is significant. We know it. The taxpayers know it,” Ellis said. “There needs to be someone there [at the meeting] that says, we also need to talk about inadequate school formula funding.”

And while he said that attending the meeting may not accomplish the goals of the council and school committee, it was “worth at least trying,” even if the purpose of the meeting is to discuss the new absenteeism initiative and not state aid.  

“What can we expect?” Ellis said. “Probably, as a small rural community in South County, not a lot. But it’s worth at least trying.”

Councilor Frank DiGregorio said that the reduction in state aid, on top of trying to secure funding for improvements to school facilities, presented a “very serious concern.”

“The funding has been reduced by almost $900,000,” DiGregorio said. “At the same time, we’re trying to address our school facilities, which is obviously very expensive, no matter how you look at it. When you bring the two together, it presents a very serious concern for the town in terms of our budget and remaining under a 4 percent cap.”

“That’s the dilemma for the two towns,” he added. “You have two storms coming together.”

He also said that state aid was being reduced for towns like Exeter, while less efficient school districts were getting the bulk of the aid.

“It certainly looks like, to me, that us and the rural areas […] are being penalized for doing our job efficiently, at the expense of the urban areas that have blown their budgets,” DiGregorio said. “We’re at a point where I don’t think we can handle this type of burden any longer. I hope the message gets back to the state.”

While school committee member Paul McFadden, who attended Monday’s council meeting, said he completely agreed with Donovan on the urgency of the situation, he questioned how much “visibility” Exeter and West Greenwich officials would have at the meeting with Infante-Green, given that the topic is about absenteeism and not state aid.

“That meeting is to go over the absentee program,” McFadden said. “I don’t know how much visibility we’re going to get on our issue.”

Though he expressed some reservations, McFadden did say he and other school officials were planning on attending the meeting with the education commissioner to try and address the reductions to state aid. The meeting with Infante-Green will take place on Jan. 17 at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

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