Schools plead for added $1.3M at budget hearing

The Cranston Herald ·

Citing needs to make Cranston’s schools into 21st century learning buildings and prepare students for a variety of post-secondary paths, schools officials took to the podium Thursday night to lobby for an additional $1.3 million for their $ 158,517,989 budget.

Superintendent Jeannine Nota first spoke to the City Council at the school budget hearing, lauding the advances the district has made recently. She said that in the past three years they’ve instituted all-day kindergarten, brought sixth graders back to middle school, brought back middle school sports, and increased the graduation rate at Cranston East to 91.6 percent and at Cranston West to 91.7 percent, as of last year.

She also said that the schools have taken a more career-oriented approach, developing the Pathways program at the middle schools to facilitate opportunities for students who may not be on the college path. She also mentioned a new criminal justice program beginning next year at Cranston East in conjunction with New England Tech.

Nota talked about these programs to show the council what the schools have been doing with their money lately and why they need continued, increased support from the city.

She also said that the physical structure of the schools also need to be dealt with, which they are continuously assessing in conjunction with Fielding Nair, an outside consulting firm, and the community. She said that today’s students must be “21st century learners” and need access to technology, improved science labs, and other new programs.

We encourage the use of technology in classrooms, and that’s an issue when there’s only two outlets in a classroom,” she said, adding that the average age of Cranston’s school buildings is 68 years.

“It’s difficult to prepare them in buildings built for 19th century construction.”

The additional $1.3 million, she said, would be used for contractual obligations, including an increase in salaries to incorporate the Pathways program. She also said that the schools have to account for tuition costs for Cranston students at charter schools or other programs around the state.

School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri added in her speech to the council that the money would be used for healthcare and mandated pension costs. Ruggieri pleaded the council for the money, saying that in her 10 years on the committee the department has asked for roughly $33 million more in total and has received only around $8 million of that.

Ruggieri also brought up a tweet from Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung that said strong public schools are the bedrock of strong communities. She said that if he thinks this, Cranston’s schools should be granted the extra money to operate. In Fung’s proposed budget the schools have been given an additional $600,000.

School Committee member Stephanie Culhane told the council that employers want students graduating with “hard skills,” and the school department is doing “everything we can on our shoe-string budget to provide these hard skills.”

Committee member and former Mayor Michael Traficante said he’s been on both sides of this process, but realizes why the schools need the extra funds.

“Special education, charter school tuition costs, statewide transportation, property insurance, energy, water, those costs add up to over $4 million,” he said. “Now you know why we’ve requested $1.2 million more. We don’t want to be gluttons, but we ask you to be realistic.”

Councilman Ken Hopkins brought up the idea of using the reserve fund, which is over $20 million, to help aid schools, but Finance Director Bob Strom said that the money is not allocated for operating costs, and decreasing it could change the city’s bond rating.

Bonds at the school level were also discussed during the meeting, with the council asking how the money is being spent and what kinds of bonds will be used in the future for some of the construction needs of the schools.

Cranston schools Operating Officer Ray Votto said that schools have a bonding authority for around $4 million in the middle schools and another $6 million in a health & safety bond, which will fund mandatory fire code projects that are upcoming. He said that any additional money for projects would need to be renewed for approval by RIDE.

During public comment, Anise Germain said that she went into her son’s classroom at Waterman Elementary School and found the building to be in poor shape, asking the council to devote money to these construction needs in Cranston’s schools.

Erin Salvidi, a school nurse in a different district, complained that her property taxes will be going up this year and the council should do what they can to not use any more city funds for the schools, adding that if they do increase funds then the money should be used for more nurses and social workers, rather than police officers.

The topic of safety in the schools was discussed as well, with $100,000 budgeted in the police department’s budget for “school safety.” Council President Farina said that this security is important, but money should also be used to put social workers into the schools, and said that that’ll be a priority when they look at the school’s budget further.

The City Council has been assessing the city’s budget in recent weeks and will meet to make amendments at a meeting in council chambers Thursday, May 3. Then, the revised budget will be adopted at a council meeting on Thursday, May 10.