atrubia@ricentral.com

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Last Monday, the North Kingstown Town Council approved an appropriation of $500,000 for the school department to fund the hiring of teachers for a newly formed Distance Learning Academy. The half-million appropriation from the town will also be matched by funds from the school department’s reserve, covering the roughly $1 million cost associated with the new distance learning option.

Due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the school department issued a survey over the summer to parents around the district that asked whether they would prefer to have their children take part in distance learning or in-person learning. The commitment, according to the survey, would have to be made for the entire fall semester.

Roughly 20 percent of the district, or 800 students, requested to take part in full-time distance learning. Out of the 800 North Kingstown students who requested to participate in distance learning, about 300 were elementary schoolers.

Though middle and high schoolers who opted into distance learning will be following along with their regular in-person classes via livestream or a recording, the hundreds of elementary schoolers required a specific group of teachers to provide instruction directly through remote learning.

According to superintendent Philip Auger, the 300 elementary students who opted into the Distance Learning Academy would require 18 teachers in total. Though the department said it could reassign five staffing positions, another 13 would have to be hired to cover the 18 distance learning classes.

After being presented with several options, the school committee voted to shuffle some existing staff and hire new teachers for distance learning, with the plan requiring an additional $1 million than what had already been budgeted. The committee also voted to use $500,000 from its own reserve fund, while sending a request to the town for an additional $500,000, to cover costs.

And on Monday, the town council approved the appropriation of up to $500,000 from its own fund balance. The new teachers will only be hired on a one-year basis for the temporary Distance Learning Academy.

“This originated from two weeks ago, we had a special Saturday session of the school committee to talk about a problem we noticed occurring for a COVID scheduling for the new year,” Auger explained to the council on Monday. “We made the decision at that meeting […] to provide distance learning for the elementary students that wanted it, and that turned out to be over 300 students.”

Auger said the hiring of the new teachers allowed the number of students per in-person classes to stay between 13 and 21, below the capacity limitations of 26. Had the district drawn from the current teaching staff to cover the Distance Learning Academy, thereby combining classes, the majority of classes would be at capacity.

“If we were to provide that instruction by drawing from the teaching staff that were already in the buildings, it would greatly increase the number of students in every classroom,” he said. “The majority of them would be at capacity. The committee felt that that was unsafe, and I agreed.”

“The committee voted to put together a format where they voted in $1 million to the administration to hire approximately 13 new teachers on one-year contracts to cover the additional 18 sections of distance learning classes that occurred,” he continued.  

Though the school district had access to federal funds for reopening costs, he said that the funds had “already been spoken for,” including increased cleaning contracts. Therefore, the school district required an additional $500,000 from the town to cover the costs of new teachers, in order to avoid further depleting its own reserve funds.

“We’re not in a position where we have a lot of fund balance to draw from,” Auger said. “We’re also being very mindful that this is not going to be a one-year problem, we’re probably looking at several years where we’re going to have to be mindful about utilizing any source of funding we can, including whatever is left of our fund balance as we go forward.”

School committee chair Greg Blasbalg said that he was comfortable dipping into the school department’s reserve funds because the hiring of the teachers was a “one-time expense.” He also noted that the council had previously come to the committee asking what resources it could provide for the reopening plans.

“The council had come before the school committee and asked a number of times what resources the town might be able to provide, and this is what we’re asking for,” he said. “We’re trying to give the taxpayers of North Kingstown and parents what they’re requesting.”

“The amount of people looking for distance learning is a tremendous number,” he continued. “Dr. Auger and his staff have essentially created an entire parallel school system that is meeting the needs of the people that are not comfortable for whatever reason not sending their children to school.”

Before approving the appropriation, the council discussed how the funds would be allocated.

Councilor Kerry McKay asked whether the school department needed the funds upfront, or if they could be dispersed on a quarterly basis based on expense reports, which the town would then match up to $500,000. And councilor Mary Brimer agreed that quarterly reports would be the best way to move forward.

“I was thinking quarterly reimbursed expenses and dollar-by-dollar matching as we discussed,” Brimer said. “Maybe we don’t have to go through the full $500,000, maybe we do.”

Brimer also asked why the school department needed an additional $500,000 from the town if it was receiving federal funds for its reopening plan.

The school district’s chief operating officer, Mary King, said that the federal funds–totaling roughly $540,000–were already being spent on cleaning expenses, personal protective equipment (PPE), box fans, additional nurses, and more.

Councilor Kevin Maloney said he was concerned about appropriating the funds with the possibility of schools reverting to full-time distance learning, depending on a potential spike in COVID-19 cases. And councilor Richard Welch said that he would like to see the school department use all of its reserve funds before the council appropriated any additional funds.

However, after discussion, the council unanimously approved the appropriation of the $500,000 from its fund balance. The council added to its motion that the funds would be dispersed in connection with quarterly invoices of expenses, which the town would then match. Town manager Ralph Mollis said that there would be flexibility when it came to the quarterly allotments, depending on potential variables.

For more information on the Distance Learning Academy, visit www.nksd.net.

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