The School Committee is expected to act tomorrow night on the department’s proposed $159.7 million budget calling for a $1.1 million increase in city funding.
Last Thursday the committee heard presentations from department managers as Superintendent Richard D’Agostino advanced the spending package for the upcoming fiscal year.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci said that while the department was able to reduce the overall budget by $100,615, as compared to the School Committee’s most recent approved revised budget as of March 11, the net effect of losing surplus carryover funds of $2.23 million against increased revenues of $1.034 million “puts us in a position where we need additional revenue of $1,196,068 in order to maintain the current level of buildings, programs and services for FY 2015.”
While the budget calls for the layoff of 20 teaching positions (the most allowable under contract) for $2 million in savings, it keeps all existing schools open and reinstates a third librarian at the junior high level, a position that was eliminated during the last round of budget cuts. Presently, two junior high librarians split their time at the three schools, which prevent students from being able to check out books when a librarian isn’t present.
On the revenue side, Ferrucci said the department anticipates receiving an additional $986,941 in state aid, which after minor adjustments made to each revenue line based on actual trends, results in a positive net impact of $46,991.
Ferrucci is also projecting a $1.7 million surplus in the FY 2014 budget, however that money had been earmarked to put toward the replacement of the roof at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, which is estimated to cost $2.2 million, until the committee voted 3-2 not to approve the bid award last Tuesday. The committee plans to reconsider the bid when it meets on Wednesday to approve the recommended budget proposal.
Before listing a number of cost impacts on the budget, Ferrucci recounted past measures that were taken to reduce the budget, which included closing elementary schools in an effort to reduce staff and utility costs; school employees agreeing to pay 20 percent of their medical premiums, thereby saving millions annually; outsourcing in-house transportation to First Student, thereby reducing 64 staff positions and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually; and an additional staff reduction of 216.5 full-time equivalents over the past eight years.
Ferrucci said being able to achieve the $100,615 reduction from the March 11 adopted revised budget is “quite a tribute to the staff of Warwick Public Schools given the following notable cost impacts,” which include an 8.9 percent increase in state pension contributions; 7 percent increase in medical costs; 20 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums; 4.6 percent increase in transportation costs based on First Student contractual increases, two new bus routes and statewide contract increases; 38 percent increase in tuitions for career and technology programs and charter schools outside the district; 4.5 percent increase in supplies and materials; and 25 percent increase in debt service on bond principal and interest, which the department has committed to pay out of operating funds, for a total of $3,381,220 in non-negotiable cost increases.
Ferrucci explained that because $2.230 million of prior year surplus was utilized to balance the budget for FY 2014, the department had a structural deficit going into the FY 2015 budget process because that revenue would no longer be available.
CRAFTING THE BUDGET
“Budget managers were advised that given the economic conditions within our community, budget increases were unlikely and thus all efforts were needed to reduce where possible and minimize increases where necessary,” he said.
Ferrucci said after initial submittals were made by budget managers, district directors and a Central Office Review Team examined everything and discussed the proposal with D’Agostino, who along with Ferrucci finalized the superintendent’s recommend budget for the School Committee to consider.
During the review process, Ferrucci said $970,000 in reductions had to be made to managers’ requests in the areas of curriculum; buildings, grounds and capital items; and technology and management information. Line items affected included: substitutes for professional development ($100,000), music/arts supplies ($55,000) and music/arts equipment ($25,000) in curriculum; vehicles ($90,000) in buildings, grounds and capital items; and professional development ($50,000), technology hardware ($400,000) and technology software ($250,000) in technology and management information.
In addition to keeping schools open and reinstating the third junior high librarian, Ferrucci said other initiatives included in the budget proposal are $153,000 for social studies textbooks at the junior high level and $18,000 for personal finance textbooks at the secondary level, as well as $40,000 set aside in capital improvements for unforeseen equipment failures, such as a boiler, as “no new capital project initiatives are included in the FY 15 operating budget.”
Ferrucci explained that when crafting the budget over the past two years, a list of budget items identified as important but not included in the budget due to fiscal constraints were featured as part of the budget presentation in an attempt to acknowledge community concerns regarding certain issues that should be funded.
“This communication became misinterpreted during the FY 2014 budget presentation as a ‘wish list,’ thereby causing concern and misunderstanding,” he said, adding that because administrators and budget managers felt chastised for the move, “wish lists” – later deemed priority lists to avoid the negative connotation of a wish list – were not included in current budget presentations.
This became an area of contention between budget managers and some members on the School Committee, specifically when David LaPlante, director of buildings and grounds, presented his budget request.
DEBATING IMPORTANCE OF PRIORITY LISTS
LaPlante explained that while there is about $1 million included in his budget for repairs and custodian supplies, only $40,000 was set aside in capital projects, which he said “might as well be zero.”
“Capital is usually for replacements, not repairs, and is typically handled under bond work,” he said. “We put a list of [capital] needs together, but there’s no money available to support the needs. The full list totals $14 million.”
This upset committee member Eugene Nadeau.
“We have a number of buildings that are in need of repairs; why wouldn’t you include that list in your budget request and not worry about what we do with the budget,” Nadeau said, adding that it’s up to the School Committee to prioritize where funds are spent.
LaPlante said he didn’t include the list because he knew the money wasn’t available to support it.
“I’m not happy about it, but that’s the decision,” he said, adding that $1.4 million was cut with the elimination of capital projects in order to balance the budget.
LaPlante said $3.4 million of his $4.4 million budget is devoted to utility costs, such as electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, and oil, which he has no control over.
“How can we show a $1.7 million surplus if we need all these improvements at the buildings?” Nadeau countered.
“Mr. Nadeau, if you want to give me a blank check, I could get a lot done,” LaPlante responded.
D’Agostino said the roof at Vets should be the priority.
“The $1.7 million would have taken care of that, but there are a lot of things that need to get done and we don’t have the money,” he said.
Committee chairwoman Beth Furtado agreed the focus should be on the Vets roof before anything else.
“As much as we’d like to do all we can that needs to get done, we have to prioritize; and to spend money on other matters before that priority doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn supported Nadeau’s request for additional information from LaPlante.
“Mr. Nadeau is asking every budget manager to present a list of what is needed, put all your eggs in the basket, so that we know how much it costs and can then prioritize, but also so the City Council and the mayor can see it how much it costs to run the schools,” she said. “There was a wish list in the budget last year and I’d like to see it again this year to know the monetary value of everything.”
Robert Bushell, director of elementary education, said knowing the city won’t give schools any more money, budget managers tried to construct realistic budgets.
“The managers did a good job putting together budgets that are realistic with the money we can expect from the city,” he said.
The city has level funded schools at $118.6 million the past three years, with the exception of an additional $437,000 included in FY 2014 in order to preserve sports and extracurricular activities.
“I would rather spend money on eight reading teachers than put a roof on Vets,” Ahearn said. “I’m sorry, but if the city has to take care of that because we spent our money, I want that option.”
Nadeau said the time has come for the city to realize the school department has the budget it has as a result of sacrifices that have to be made.
“It’s up to us to make the final decision to determine what’s important, but give us an honest budget of what you need,” he said, addressing budget managers. “The wish list favors the education of our children and is commendable.”
Committee vice chairwoman Terri Medeiros said in the four years she’s been on the committee, it has directed budget managers to work within the budget and not ask for more money, especially in light of declining enrollment.
“I applaud everyone for working hard on their budgets. We’re doing the best we can, but to keep pushing the city to give us more money without them in the room isn’t right. No one has money,” she said. “Perhaps one day down the road, we should discuss school consolidation so we don’t have to continue cutting programs at the expense of maintaining buildings.”
Rosemary Healy, director of human resources and legal counsel for the School Committee, pointed out that legally, the School Department can’t ask for more than 3.5 percent above its existing city allocation.
Another area of concern for Ahearn was reduced grant funding in the area of professional development.
“I don’t see how we’re going to make the strides we need to make,” she said. “We’re getting there, but could we do it faster with additional training?”
Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum, said that while $75,000 was level funded in her budget for substitutes to continue curriculum department work, funds for professional development workshops to present new information or assist teachers is subject specific and is included in the English Language Arts and Math and Science budgets, respectively.
Kathleen Desrosiers, supervisor of English Language Arts, said the biggest item in her budget request was the $61,000 in professional development funds.
“With grant funding diminishing, we’re looking at a lot of staff development,” she said. “Race to the Top covered our curriculum review this year, but we need to stay ahead.”
Desrosiers said she plans to have new rubrics in the hands of teachers before they leave for the summer, and is looking at bringing in members of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University to establish laboratory classrooms to work on Common Core standards for writing, which she said will be “rigorous and front and center going forward.”
“In a laboratory classroom, a teacher allows other teachers to come in to the classroom and observe lessons on informative writing or argumentative writing, [for example], and that teacher acts a resource for colleagues,” she said.
Ryan Mullen, supervisor of Math and Science, said $30,000 was level funded for professional development in his budget. He said he plans to purchase three Google Chrome book carts, each cart consisting of 30 Chrome books, or computers, toward creating digital labs, which he said could result in savings of $20,000 once implemented.
Ahearn wasn’t happy with the numbers in Mullen’s budget request and felt he should be asking for more.
“When are we going to start funding math and science? We’ve done it for other subjects. Our [NECAP] math numbers in proficiency with distinction are flat and have remained at 1 percent,” she said. “One of the reasons I ran for this position is math and science spending, and we’re nowhere close to where we need to be.”
Siesel said the department has spent quite a bit of money on labs, support for students at the senior high level and classrooms.
“A considerable amount of time, finances, and supports for math have gone into this district; it’s not just professional development,” she said.
D’Agostino said the math component of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) is not the most appropriate judgment of a student’s math skills.
“NECAP has been a flawed instrument since its introduction,” he said. “The STAR assessment is a more reliable tool and that’s where our focus is now, and we’re performing well on STAR.”
During public comment, Darlene Netcoh, English department head and teacher at Toll Gate High School, explained why the public had issues with the “wish list” term during the last round of budget deliberations.
“The problem the public had with the wish list is that it was stated that everything on the priority list that got cut would be reseeded, but the librarian position was not put back in the budget; a fellowship position was created instead,” she said.
The next School Committee meeting will be held Wednesday, April 16 at 6 p.m. in the Toll Gate auditorium. The committee is expected to vote on the superintendent’s recommend budget proposal, as well as reconsider the bid award for the Vets roof replacement.