Photos: School finance committee ponders tough choices

Faced with declining state aid and rising costs, JFC members want solutions to impending shortfall ·

Facing one of the toughest budget years they’ve seen since the towns of Bristol and Warren regionalized 27 years ago, members of the regional school district’s financing board met Thursday night to talk about the upcoming budget, a statewide fiscal and education aid crisis and how they’ll pass a responsible budget without cutting school staff, increasing class sizes or scaling back services.

Though they’re not due to vote on a 2018-19 budget for another two months, the joint finance committee’s presentation with school officials, held in the Mt. Hope High School cafeteria, was as much a brainstorming session as a recitation of numbers:

“I think the discussions that we’re having today are helpful, not at refining specific numbers, but at understanding general concepts,” JFC chairman Andy Tyska said.

“This is a three-way problem that I think is not going to be solved in one spot. I don’t think this can be solved simply by addressing state aid (or) local contributions (or) the school budget. This represents a challenge, but hopefully we can make progress towards reconciling this gap.”

According to figures presented Thursday by school superintendent Dr. Mario Andrade, the Bristol Warren school budget is expected to rise more than $5.1 million over the next three years, from the projected $54.2 million being spent this current year to $59.46 million by 2020-21. The coming year’s projected budget is $56.57 million, a $2.3 million increase with no new programs, Dr. Andrade said.

During the same three-year period, state education aid is expected to decrease by a $1.6 million, forcing Bristol and Warren to up their local contributions by nearly $8 million.

In the end, even maintaining the current services within the school department will require a 4 percent increase in school spending, Dr. Andrade warned. 

“The school department has been relatively stable in our approved budget,” he said.

“We’re not spending new money. We’re respectful of the needs of the community, (but) if it’s a three percent increase next year, that’s a million-dollar cut from us. We’ve been very fortunate to date, but next year and moving forward, if we have to make cuts, it’s to people. That’s where we’re at.”

Thursday’s meeting was an attempt not just to show the numbers, but to rally members of the community to get more involved in the budgeting process and to support local legislators, who are expected to present legislation they hope will spare Bristol Warren the worst of the state-wide fiscal issues and bring in as much education aid as possible.

Rep. Kenneth Marshall, who represents Bristol and Warren in District 68, said he will fight for the district by putting in legislation designed to help. But he warned that pickings are slim in Providence:

“The state of Rhode Island isn’t flush with cash right now,” Rep. Marshall said. But “we are looking at all avenues. There’s power in voices. When (parents and school supporters) show up, usually the mass ultimately wins the day.”

Warren councilor issues warning

One of the most outspoken JFC members at Thursday’s meeting was Warren Town Council president Joseph DePasquale, who warned those in attendance that even toeing the line on the school budget this coming year will have severe impacts on Warren’s taxpayers.

When the JFC last met in November, council members were asked to look at their budgets and estimate how the projected school budget would impact them.

Mr. DePasquale was not optimistic. With a 4.1 percent tax increase dedicated solely toward increased school costs, he said, Warren taxpayers would see a 78-cent per $1,000 tax increase.

“Let it be known, we will have to cut the (municipal) budget in order to meet, if needed, that full funding request. We do not, and I will not, accept it as normal practice to start off at a 4 percent increase.”

“My goal as a member here and as the president of the Warren Town Council is not to get into the weeds with the school committee, not to look at your spending, (but) when you ask another body to fund money that you already committed to spend, you should have a Plan B. I and my colleagues do not put together a budget that cannot be funded.”

Other members said they’re prepared to take a closer look at the numbers. Bristol Town Council Chairman Nathan Calouro said that in years past, JFC members went into school budget discussions much later in the year, and did not have enough time to read through the school budget in detail. The information provided by Dr. Andrade is a good start, he said, but could be even better:

“I would like more” information, he said. “Fifty-two percent of our budget is the school budget. I need more information to make these decisions; it’s not a complaint, I know it comes out that way. I think the JFC makes decisions based on not enough information. I’m part of that problem, but I also want to be part of that solution. I think it’s our job to know more about this. I haven’t asked enough questions, but I’m asking them now.”

Parents speak in support

About 20 members of the school committee, parents and other residents attended the meeting, and several got up to talk about their own hopes with the budget and to offer support to the school committee and legislators.

Annmarie Chappell, who has two children in the Colt Andrews School, said she worries that a tighter bottom line will ultimately lead to larger class sizes, something she believes should be avoided at all costs.

“I believe (teachers) need more help,” she said. “All these children that are in these large classrooms are going to be in them straight through the fifth grade. And that does a disservice to them. This goes for everyone’s children; I don’t think anyone wants their children in a large classroom. The teachers won’t be able to assess them properly, especially in reading … which will affect other things such as math and science.”

School committee member Adam Ramos, speaking as a parent and not a committee member, said one key going forward is for the schools to determine what their definition of school performance is:

“When it comes to schools, there are a wide variety of ways to (define) what it means to be a high achieving school or a high achieving district. That needs to be a conversation … so that we know what areas we’re looking at.”

The joint finance committee is expected to meet again prior to March, and members encouraged the public to attend the next two school committee meetings — one a budget subcommittee meeting, the other a full board meeting — on Feb. 20 and 26, respectively.