Town-School Consolidation Takes Step Closer to Reality

Sticking point remains School Committee’s desire for a finance staff person who reports solely to the superintendent, but the panel has few alternatives other than to comply.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

A proposal outlining town and school finance and human resources consolidation found a welcome reception before the Town Council this week, while the School Committee continues to struggle with the concept.

Both elected bodies have had a chance to review a memorandum of agreement put together by schools lawyer Matt Oliverio after extensive meetings in recent weeks between Supt. Victor Mercurio and Town Manager Gayle Corrigan.

Members of the Town Council said Monday night they were ready to go ahead with the plan, though Councilman Nino Granatiero said he didn’t understand why the School Committee felt it needed a memorandum of agreement to seal the deal.

“I read through it. It will work. But I just kind of shook my head that we need it,” he said.

Alternatively, the School Committee at their meeting March 6 tabled the MOA, still uncertain about the proposed consolidated finance office reporting structure.

“The deputy director of administration reports to the director of administration, not the superintendent,” said Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark, hitting on the issue that has challenged the committee since consolidation talks (under the “One Town” banner) last summer.

“I would have the same access that I have now,” Mercurio responded, noting that the town and schools have been sharing a finance director since June.

“I talk to [school department finance clerk] Christine Spagnoli now, without going through [joint Finance Director] Linda Dykeman,” he said.

Mark conceded that the access would remain the same, but wondered about the hiring process.

“The memorandum of understanding addresses most of my most pressing concerns but it doesn’t address the hiring or firing of the deputy director position,” Mark said. “I’m just concerned about that person not being a direct report to the superintendent.”

The plan, as put forth March 6, closely resembled Town Manager Corrigan’s ultimatum from December, when she said the town and the schools needed to decide whether they would “marry or divorce.” Divorce would mean the school district would need to rebuild staff that had been shared with the town since 2005. Marriage would be complete finance consolidation.

But Oliverio argued that the MOA he drafted and which was approved by Corrigan and town lawyer David D’Agostino provided safeguards for the schools, including a “non-interference clause” for positions that would report to both the town manager and the superintendent.

“In the decision-making process between the town manager and the superintendent, should they not agree, there is a dispute resolution process,” Oliverio said.

He added, “The only way that I could recommend this proposed consolidation was to have an opt-out provision that would be agreed upon by the Town Council and the School Committee.”

If either the town or the schools decided the arrangement wasn’t working, they could opt out at least 60 days before the end of the fiscal year.

However, Supt. Mercurio said at an earlier meeting – and several School Committee members agreed – that rebuilding a standalone school finance department was a fiscal non-starter; several positions were taken over by the town years ago, so it would necessitate hiring multiple staff members with money the school district doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, Dykeman said the money saved through the consolidation would be $70,000.

Another important aspect of this consolidation would be to move some school administrators over to Town Hall. If approved, the superintendent’s office would move to the second floor of Town Hall and special education would move to the ground floor. The Planning Department and IT would move to the school administration offices at 111 Peirce Street. The as-yet unrealized position of director of teaching and learning (i.e. curriculum director) would also be located at 111 Peirce Street.  Public Works would undertake the renovations with the town picking up the cost.

The School Committee will take up the MOA at its meeting next Tuesday, March 20. If the School Committee approves the plan, the Town Council will vote on it at their next meeting, March 26.

You can see details of the consolidation, including the new office plans, here.


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Tale of Two Walkouts: One Sanctioned, One Not

About 50 students walked out of the high school Wednesday morning to hold a 17-minute silent vigil to honor victims of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida Feb. 14.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – About 300 East Greenwich High School students took part in walkouts Wednesday morning, to honor those killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month and protest school shootings. But it didn’t go quite as planned.

Some student organizers had agreed to hold the walkout in the auditorium Wednesday as per school administration wishes – as many as 250 students went to the auditorium during Advisory (a weekly free period during which special assemblies are held, and students can visit teachers or work on homework). But another 50 or so defied school officials and held their vigil in front of the school.

What started with just three or four students who left the building at 10 a.m. Wednesday grew as others walked out to join them. According to one student who participated, school administrators watched as they walked out but did not try to stop them.

The students stood in a large circle, holding hands in silence in front of the school for 17 minutes. School Resource Officer Bert Montalban stood nearby. Afterwards, as the students went back into the school, they were asked to sign in. Later, those students got an email from Principal Michael Podraza:

“This email serves as a reminder that if you have not received permission … you need to remain in the school building for the duration of the school day. After considering all the surrounding circumstances, you are being sent this email as a written warning alerting you to potential escalated consequence should you exit the building in the future without prior parental or administrative approval.”

Student sign posters of support for those who died in Florida Wednesday.

The students in the auditorium also held a silent vigil, heard from a variety of speakers, and learned how they could register to vote and contact their elected officials. Organizer Abby White was happy with the turnout and said it was a positive event.

She acknowledged that some were critical Wednesday of the auditorium “walkout” but thought the goal of student engagement was achieved.

“I think we made a strong message to students about them getting involved,” White said.

Some students said they felt trapped in the auditorium and were angry that they were not able to join the students outside.

One student said administrators funneled them into the auditorium.

Frustration had been bubbling up for many days, with some students unhappy after school administrators placed prohibitions on the walkout. Citing safety concerns, Principal Podraza said students could gather in the outdoor courtyard at the center of the school rather than in the front. Then, with Tuesday’s big snowstorm, the walkout was moved, again by administrators, to the auditorium.

Senior Zoe Pellegrino, one of the original organizers of the walkout, got frustrated when the student-led protest seemed to be taken away from the students.

“Having this organized just by us was important,” Pellegrino said Wednesday afternoon. She pushed back against the idea that going out to the front of the school provided a safety concern, noting that students are allowed to eat lunch in front of the school every day.

Pellegrino was among the students who participated in the vigil in front of the school.

“It was very, very powerful,” she said. “We all held hands for the 17 minutes, as silent as we could be.”

Later, Pellegrino posted a message on Facebook, excerpted here:

“My intentions and hopes … were to have as many people as possible … participate in 17 minutes of silence and solidarity…. Clearly, paths got crossed and a lot of confusion and fear of consequences arose. It is clear that two very different events took place today…. I’m extremely disappointed with the way our school and administration handled the idea of a genuine walkout.”

Another student who walked out said, via Facebook Messenger, “I walked out because the point of the protest was a ‘walk-out’ not a ‘sit-in.’ We as young adults are encouraged to take part in the world and have a voice…. Being outside with a fairly large group of my peers was amazing. It was very nice to see how many people cared about the cause and were willing to risk punishment.”

Freshman Jordan Kalinsky expressed her frustration with not being about to join the group out front in an open letter to Principal Podraza on Facebook: Dear Mr. Podraza.

In an email later Wednesday, Kalinsky said, “What matters now is what we’re trying to do to make sure the administration hears our frustrations about our right to protest and their lack of support.”

When asked for comment about Wednesday’s events, Podraza said this, via email:

“At the end of the period leading to advisory, all students were directed to go to advisory or to the optional event being run by the EGHS Civic Action club as would occur with any Wednesday advisory block where an optional event was occurring. However, some students elected to walkout of the building. No student has lost extra-curricular activities as a result of today’s events.”
While the two walkouts were different, leaders of both spoke of similar aims going forward.
“I hope people continue to stay involved, going to marches in Providence or doing things within the school,” Pellegrino said.
“We encouraged the students to stay engaged and involved,” Abby White wrote in a Facebook post. “We understand that passions were high and opinions were many, but we need them all to move forward and make real change.”
After this story was posted, Principal Podraza sent an email to the school community with his takeaways from Wednesday’s events. Here it is: Email from Mr. Podraza.

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EGHS Students Plan Walkout to Protest School Shootings, Honor Victims

‘If we do nothing, this will continue – not necessarily to us but to students across the country.’

 

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – To be a high school student in 2018 is to contemplate the idea that someone might come into your school to hurt people. After the shooting Feb. 14 that left 17 dead and scores wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there decided it was time to do something. That activism has spread nationwide, including to some students at East Greenwich High School who have organized a “walkout” Wednesday morning to honor those injured and killed and to encourage students to become politically active.

The organizers got permission from school Principal Michael Podraza but he would not allow them to leave the school, citing safety concerns. Instead, the plan had been for the students to walk out to the interior courtyard. Because of Tuesday’s snow, however, that has been scrapped. The students will now conduct their walkout activities in the auditorium.

Freshman Miguel Figueroa saw the walkout as a perfect opportunity to raise awareness at the high school.

“This is not a political, partisan thing. This is about the lives and the health and safety of students,” he said. “If we do nothing, this will continue – not necessarily to us but to students across the country. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Another organizer, sophomore Josh Petteruti, said enough was enough.

“I would call myself a victim of desensitization to school shootings,” he said. “It’s never really struck me until Parkland.”

Petteruti is in favor of some gun control measures – banning “bump stocks,” raising the age to 21 to buy long guns – but he also belongs to a gun range and believes in the right of mentally healthy people to be able to own guns.

There are other measures to take, he said. In particular, he said, schools should have more school psychologists. (EG schools have four school psychologists, including one at the high school.)

“Mental health is an issue that needs to be tackled,” said Petteruti.

“We’re not just trying to make a message and walk out of class,” said organizer Abby White, a junior. During the event, “we’ll be giving students links to register to vote and to write their opinions and email Congress. A lot of kids have strong opinions about what action should be taken.”

She said the hope was to get kids to stay politically active, whatever they believe.

“We really need to follow through and fight for what we believe in,” said White.

The walkout is optional. Sophomore Andre Gianfrocco said he plans to attend.

“Everyone has the same feeling about Parkland. It was a messed up thing. I definitely feel like they are honoring the people of Parkland,” he said, but added, “people could be putting more energy in actually securing schools more.”

Gianfrocco said he’s had a plan about what he would do if a shooter came into his school since he was in elementary school.

“I would hop out a window and run,” he said.

Junior Zing Gee will be on a field trip on Wednesday but he said he wouldn’t participate even if he was at school.

“I think school shootings are heart-breaking, horrific events that nobody should have to go through,” Zing said via email. “I wouldn’t walk out because I simply don’t agree with all of the reasons behind the walkout. Personally, I support the Second Amendment and while I agree that certain legislation such as that banning bump stocks is reasonable, I don’t support banning semi-automatic rifles, which is something many people have been calling for.”

He added, “I think increased school security can help. I also support it when news outlets don’t publish the name or photos of people who commit school shootings because these people shouldn’t be given publicity or notoriety.”

Freshman Emmy Nutting would fall into the category of wanting to ban certain weapons. If the decision was hers, she said, she would get rid of guns but she knows there’s great resistance to that. She will be taking part in the walkout.

“I’m very glad the protests are going on,” she said. “If a shooting happened, if someone I cared about got killed … if there had been any way i could have prevented it, that would weigh heavily. I’m hoping something will change. When people look back in history, I don’t want to be part of that group that just sat there. Things don’t change if people don’t act.”

The walkout is restricted to students only. Students and adults are invited to “A Call to Action” Wednesday night from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the First Lutheran Church, 118 Division St. Speakers will include representatives from Moms Demand Action, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, among others. The evening is hosted by EGHS Civic Action.


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Trash Can Fire at EGHS Slowed By Parent’s Use of Fire Extinguisher

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

For the second time in less than four days, the benefits of a handy fire extinguisher were on display – this time at East Greenwich High School, where an oily cloth in a plastic trash basket seems to have caught fire Saturday night in a area of the building that houses both a computer lab and the woodshop.

At the time, the auditorium was screening the movie “The Avengers” – a fundraiser for the high school’s sailing team. The smell of burnt plastic alerted moviegoers to an issue and someone called 911.

“It’s a good thing they were there,” Mears said of the moviegoers. “One of the parents was smart enough to take an extinguisher off the wall, and sprayed underneath the floor,” helping to put out the fire. The door to the classroom was locked. 

It wasn’t much of a fire but it could have been, Mears said.

Beyond the rank odor of burning plastic, the only real damage was the trash basket itself and a couple of floor tiles, Mears said.

The official cause of the fire has yet to be released but Mears said it appeared to have been a case of spontaneous combustion.

Cloths with petroleum-based products need to be aired out and dried completely before disposing of them. Mears said he hangs up oily cloths outside or over the side of an open trash can. Like the middle of a compost pile, an oil-soaked rag or bunch of rags in the bottom of a trash can or  bag will get hot but, because of the oil, the rags can burst into flame.


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Advocates of Religious Holidays, Feb. Break Speak Out to School Committee

Several people came out for the School Committee’s second reading of the 2018-19 school calendar Tuesday night, fearing that religious holidays – particularly the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the weeklong break in February – might be on the chopping block.

The draft calendar being looked at by the School Committee doesn’t touch either of those but even the discussion of such moves at the School Committee meeting two weeks ago was enough to rally the troops.

For School Committeeman Matt Plain, discussion of calendar alternatives, including how to handle religious holidays, is an important part of his job as an elected official. But, Plain said Tuesday, he may not have been sensitive enough to the concerns of some people when talking about religious holidays.

The draft 2018-19 calendar would start school on Wednesday, Aug. 29, before the Labor Day weekend, as in past years. But both Rosh Hashanah (Monday, Sept. 10) and Yom Kippur (Wednesday, Sept. 19) fall on weekdays next year and there is the likelihood of a state Primary Day, which is currently slated for Wednesday, Sept. 12.

For some, that makes for a very disruptive beginning to the school year. With weeklong breaks in February and April, the cumulative impact means the final day of school is Monday, June 17. That is, unless there are unexpected days off for snowstorms and the like. The district has been averaging about four storm-type days off in recent years. If that were the case next year, the last day of school would be Friday, June 21.

Is this a problem? It depends on who you speak to.

Jeremy Weinberg said the fact that the schools were off for the Jewish holidays made a big difference to his family. “When my wife and I and our three children were looking for a place to live in Rhode Island, seeing that North Kingstown didn’t have those days off sent a signal to us. Seeing that East Greenwich did sent a different signal,” he said.

Rabbi Aaron Philmus of Temple Torat Yisrael on Middle Road said it would send the wrong signal if the Jewish holidays were taken away now, just three years after there was actually a Jewish place of worship in town. (See video for more.)

Carla Swanson took a different view.

“It breaks my heart that the school calendar is seen as a bellwether of how welcoming our community is,” she said. “The public schools should not have any religious holidays.”

But, she added, “I certainly would not like to see the Jewish holidays taken off and Good Friday staying on.”

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said she wanted to hear from the Administrative Council, which is made up of school principals and other administrators.

“I’m very interested in hearing what the Administrative Council thinks is in the best interest of teaching and learning,” she said.

Two high school students and some parents spoke in favor of retaining the February break.

“It would just be too long from Christmas vacation all the way to April vacation” to go without a vacation, said EGHS sophomore Caroline Hollingsworth. “I think we should have a break in there. A long weekend is not enough.”

Freshman Emily Brooks said she spent the first few days of the vacation last week catching up on school work but then, she said, “I was really able to put my books down and relax.”

If homework – too much of it – is the issue, said Committeewoman Lori McEwen, that can be addressed. Teachers could be told “no homework” if a long weekend were to replace February break, for instance.

“It struck me that we almost take that as gospel that there has to be so much homework that we can’t avoid it,” she said. As it happens, the district is in the midst of evaluating the homework load.

February break has also been a valuable time for high school students to visit college campuses, several people told the School Committee.

The calendar will be on the agenda again on March 6, possibly for a vote. You can watch the whole debate from Feb. 27 here.


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Schools React to Florida Shooting, Offering Support, Urging Vigilance

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended since it first posted.

Following the deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school Wednesday, Supt. Victor Mercurio and EGHS Principal Michael Podraza sent out emails to the school community outlining just what is being done in East Greenwich schools to protect against such an incident here.

… Our first priority is to create and maintain a safe and supportive environment at all of the East Greenwich Public Schools,” Mercurio wrote in his email, which went out to all families in the district. (Read the full letter here: Parent Support Letter.)

Principal Podraza’s letter (which was signed by other high school administrators) was more of a call to action.

“We ask that all members of the EGHS community take time to reflect and reaffirm our commitment to take all actions necessary to keep everyone at EGHS both safe and supported,” it read. (Read the full letter here: Letter to EGHS 2/15/2018.)

The email asks students if they are worried about any other students and tells them, for instance, to not let people into the high school without going through the main entrance. It tells parents who to contact if they are worried about their child’s wellbeing or that of another student.

“We know that taking some of the actions listed above might be uncomfortable. However, we believe that the feelings of being uncomfortable pale in comparison to the weight of emotion one would feel if tragedy strikes and one could have taken action, yet didn’t,” the email reads.

These emails come one week after rumors of potential violence at EGHS prompted a wave of anxiety to sweep through the Facebook page, East Greenwich Parents for Excellence.

Eventually, Principal Podraza issued an email to families to address the issue:

We have been made aware of rumors circulating around various social media platforms about the existence of a video alleging a threat to East Greenwich High School. Upon receiving word of the post, the East Greenwich Police Department was immediately notified. We take any and all information given to us by concerned members of our school community very seriously and turn any information over to the East Greenwich Police Department for investigation. While the East Greenwich Police Department’s initial review did not conclude any threat to the high school, the East Greenwich Police continue to conduct a complete and thorough investigation of this matter. Please know that the safety of our students and staff here at East Greenwich High School is our top priority, and all threats are taken seriously. If through the course of the investigation any information is brought to light were violations of the EGPS behavior code or RI State laws have occurred we will all appropriate and required actions.   

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said Thursday said she wanted the community to know the district has been working hard to make EG schools safer.

“The work didn’t start in the last couple of weeks. it’s been going on for several years now,” she said. She acknowledged that the community deserved more information about what the district is doing and said some of that work can be seen in the changes to the fronts of schools across the district. Hanaford was the last school to get a renovated entrance with a buzzer system and visibility to see who is at the entrance – that work was finished just this past fall.

“There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes too,” said Mark, work that won’t be made public for safety reasons.

She said new safety measures (including new drills) should be in place by the end of the school year and that the district would be working harder to communicate with families.


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This Week in EG: Council, School Committee Pre-Budget Meeting

Councilman Mark Schwager with members of the East Greenwich Academy’s Class of 1942 (from left) Charlotte Dumas, Everett Lundberg, and Marian Helwig. They all attended the opening of the EG Historic Preservation Society exhibit of photos from EG Academy at the EG Free Library. Catch it while you can!

A weekly article that lists happenings in East Greenwich and nearby. If you have something you’d like to add, send your information to egreenwichnews@gmail.com.

Monday, Feb. 12

Joint Town Council–School Committee meeting … and a Town Council meeting – Both panels meet in executive session at 6 p.m. – the Town Council in the back room at Swift with the town manager search advisory committee and the School Committee in the superintendent’s conference room. Then, at 7 p.m., they will meet together at Swift Community Center in a “pre-budget meeting” where the council will present revenue projections and the School Committee will present its estimates of expenditures, enrollment and staff and program requirements. They will also discuss the status of the School Department’s sewer bill and what’s to happen to joint school-town finance operations.

Tuesday, Feb. 13

EG Tree Council meeting – This volunteer-run group will be discussing spring planting plans as well as tree maintenance. All are welcome. If you can’t make it but would like to learn more or want a street tree in front of your house, contact egtreecouncil@gmail.com.

Wednesday, Feb. 14

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Lunch on the Hill – If you are looking for some good food and company, stop by the dining room at St. Luke’s Church on Peirce Street where you will find both. A free lunch is offered every week, sponsored by various local churches and restaurants – a different church-restaurant combination each week.From 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Historic District Commission meeting – Six projects are on the agenda, including addition and modifications for Blu on the Water and an application to demolish the former Sunoco station at First and Main streets.

OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE

Recycling is OFF this week.

Town Boards Need You! – Here’s the list of town boards with vacancies.

  • Affordable Housing Commission
  • Board of Assessment Review
  • Cove Management Commission
  • Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission
  • Historic District Commission
  • Housing Authority
  • Juvenile Hearing Board
  • Municipal Land Trust
  • Planning Board
  • Senior and Community Center Advisory Council

In you are interested, go to www.eastgreenwichri.com/TownGovernment/BoardsCommissions for more information and an application or come to the Town Clerk’s Office at 125 Main Street. Submit applications and resumes to the same address or via email to lcarney@eastgreenwichri.com.

Register for email updates from the town – Sign up through the town’s Notify Me system and you can receive anything from a weekly email listing meetings and events to targeted emails about specific boards and commissions you are interested in. In addition, you will be notified in case of emergencies (i.e. parking bans, other important information). Click here to get started. And, for those who signed up before August, revisit the link if you have specific topics about which you’d like more information.

LOOKING AHEAD

Saturday, April 7

EG Track Club’s 7th Annual Bunny Hop 5K & 1 Mile Fun Run – The East Greenwich Track Club’s 7th Annual Bunny Hop 5k and 1 Mile Fun Run is coming up on Saturday, April 7, starting at 9 a.m. at Goddard Park. Proceeds go towards fully funding the popular Summer Track Series for ages 4-14 (do not have to be an EG resident to participate) on Wednesday nights in July at the EGHS track. We’ve been able to provide the series for free for 6 years. Last summer, 300 children came out during the first week! Find out more and register here.


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Mark Your Calendar: EGHS Wall of Honor Ceremony Is April 11

Honorees include Guy Asadorian and Matt Plain

The Wall of Honor at EGHS can be found in the hallway between the auditorium and the cafeteria.

The 2018 East Greenwich High School Wall of Honor Ceremony will be held Wednesday, April 11, at 6 p.m. at the East Greenwich High School Auditorium.

The ceremony, which usually lasts an hour and a half, will honor five East Greenwich High School graduates who have gone on to success in life and can serve as an inspiration to current students at the school.

Being honored this year are: John Chandler, Class of 1966; Diane McDonald, Class of 1969; Dr. Bernice Pescosolido, Class of 1970; Guy Asadorian, Class of 1982, and, Matt Plain, Class of 1994.

This year’s recipients have achieved success in such varied fields as business, education, mental health, athletics, law, and the world of horses. Profiles of each honoree will be posted on EG News in coming weeks.

It is hoped that their family, friends, classmates and teammates will attend the ceremony to honor this group for its many achievements.  It is also hoped that as many former honorees as can, will also attend the ceremony, which is now going into its 11th year.

The East Greenwich High School Wall of Honor is sponsored by another very successful alumnus, Allen Gammons, of Berkshire Hathaway Gammons Realty, who has stood by it almost from its inception.

If you have any questions concerning the event, please call committee co-chairs Bob Houghtaling at 230-2246 or Chris Cobain at 398-1562.

 

Eying Tough Budget Talks Ahead, School Committee Seeks Bids on Pre-Caruolo Audit

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The School Committee voted Tuesday to send out a request for a proposal (RFP) for a two-pronged audit that would encompass both the district’s finances and education program.

The committee’s solicitor, Matt Oliverio, said he thought it was a good idea to send it out now, to get an idea of what such an audit might cost.

“I don’t know of any other district that’s gone out to bid for this type of audit,” he said during the meeting. “There is a sense of urgency to kind of move it along.… It’s in preparation for anticipating a deficit, anticipating that for a second year in a row you don’t receive adequate funding from the town.”

Oliverio has referred to such an audit as a “pre-Caruolo” action.

The Caruolo Act (R.I. General Law 16-2-21.4) outlines the provisions by which a school committee can sue a town council  if it determines the approved budget appropriation is not enough to carry out its contractual commitments, as well as basic mandates under state and federal law and regulations.

The School Committee asked for a $1.3 million budget increase last year – the most it could request, 4 percent of the $34 million it got in fiscal year 2017. The town gave the district less than half of that, $530,000.

There was some discussion about whether or not the committee could vote to send out the RFP since it was not on the agenda as an action item. But committee members ended up voting 7-0 in favor of sending it out because the agenda has a standing sentence that reads, ““Any items on the agenda may be subject to a vote.”

“You can put the RFP out there and we don’t have to act on it. Why shouldn’t we just put the RFP out there? We think we’re going to need it,” said Committee member Jeff Dronzek. “We don’t have anything to lose, except time.”

The panel also discussed year-to-date spending. Town Manager Gayle Corrigan said in December she would not entertain additional money for the schools until there was a better picture of where the district stood budget-wise.

According to school finance manager Christine Spagnoli, as of the end of December – halfway through the budget year – the district had a deficit of $518,443 (FY2018 year end projections). However, Mark and committee Finance Chair Jeff Dronzek both said that number could change based on a few unknowns.

One of those relates to the new health care plan approved by teachers and paraprofessionals and how it is paid for this year. The district is picking up the $4,000 co-pay for calendar year 2018, but will be reimbursed 50 percent by teachers. The question is, does the district have to pay it all in fiscal year 2018 (which ends June 30) or can the district spread that cost over the calendar year (which comprises half of fiscal year 2019). It’s complicated, and it depends on accounting practices. Spagnoli told the committee Tuesday she is still researching that answer.

The district is also short $72,000 in state aid due to the General Assembly’s failure to pass its budget last summer until weeks into the fiscal year. It’s still unclear, officials say, whether or not the state will be paying that money.

Another unknown is when and how much the district will be reimbursed for certain insurance claims it’s seeking for miscellaneous repairs.

There have been savings in some areas, including in the salaries budget line. Spagnoli said that was due to teachers on leave who are on a higher pay scale (step) who have been replaced by teachers at a lower step.

While that might help the district’s bottom line this budget year, Mark noted, that savings won’t translate to next year, once those higher-step teachers return.

“As we look at next year, we’re going to have to factor in the returning teachers,” Mark said.

Alternatively, the line item for nursing is already at 106 percent. The School Committee’s original budget request to the town had asked for $247,000 for nursing. Under the town’s lower appropriation, the line dropped to $174,000. That is one area the committee could look to for additional money from the town, since nursing services can be dictated by the need of the student population (i.e. students with medical conditions like diabetes that require regular attention).

There’s also the more than $100,000 that was needed to pay for an additional preschool classroom (due to higher than anticipated enrollment of preschool-age children with special needs whom the district is required to educate). The district has known about that expenditure since last summer but the town has so far refused to appropriate additional money for that.

“At what point do we start making a plan, given that we’re projecting a deficit?” said Committee member Matt Plain, referring to going back to the town for more money to cover this year’s costs.

“It’s a good question,” replied Mark. “There are some outstanding issues such as not knowing how much insurance is going to be reimbursing us. And whether or not we’re going to be able to account for some of the healthcare related costs next year instead of all in this fiscal year. I’m not sure we’d be ready to do it now .… When we get to February, we’ll have all of January’s number and a very good sense of February.”

Dronzek agreed.

“We could perhaps by that meeting start to put together what would be the costs that would be documented need,” he said.

The School Committee meets next on Feb. 6. The next budget update will be at their Feb. 27 meeting.

Residents Challenge Numbers Used by Council to Justify Budget Actions

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The first statistic that caught Eugene Quinn’s attention was the 51 percent listed in a flyer from the Town Council that went out to residents last spring. The flyer said property taxes had increased 51 percent since 2011.

“From what I knew from my tax bill, it wasn’t anything near 51 percent,” Quinn said in a recent interview. Quinn moved to town 40 years ago, but other than an unsuccessful run for School Committee in 2012, he’d remained largely uninvolved in local government. The flyer changed that. Quinn, an assistant professor of mathematics at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, became a member of the School Committee’s finance subcommittee. And he started attending Town Council meetings.

At a Town Council meeting in early June, Quinn got up during public comment to question the 51 percent calculation. Council President Sue Cienki said she would set up a meeting for Quinn with then-Finance Director Kristen Benoit, but that never happened.

By June 19, the town had a new town manager (Gayle Corrigan) and by June 30, it had a new finance director (Linda Dykeman).

On his own, Quinn got some information about the tax rolls from now-retired Tax Assessor Janice Peixinho, but it was when he got ahold of the tax rolls themselves that he really got busy.

The tax roll is a public record of every single tax bill in town. Quinn liked that the rolls were just the numbers – “no assumptions, no calculations.”

He converted the tax rolls from 2011 and 2016 into text files and wrote some computer code (Python, for those of you who know of such things) to get the numbers out of that.  

“And when you do that you get a 13.23 percent median percent increase,” he said. Not a 51 percent increase.

Quinn produced a video to explain his work and asked the council to print a retraction. That did not happen.

In December, however, Cienki suggested meeting with Quinn to talk about that figure (as well as Cienki’s claim that the town’s unfunded pension liability is $86 million and Council Vice President Sean Todd’s assertion that the tax levy will be $100 million in 15 years).

The meeting took place Dec. 20 and included Cienki, Quinn, Todd and two additional residents – Anne Musella (who was there in support of Quinn) and Stuart Peterson (who was there in support of Cienki and Todd). Musella is a lawyer and is a member of the School Committee’s Transportation Subcommittee. Peterson, a financial advisor, was appointed to the School Committee in March 2016 (after a mid-term resignation by Deidre Gifford); he headed the finance committee for the School Committee until he lost his seat in November 2016.

In a statement issued last week by Quinn and Musella, they said Cienki said the town would publish corrected data on the tax increase between 2011 and 2016. 

After the Dec. 20 meeting, there was some effort to agree on a joint statement that would highlight both where the two sides agreed and where they did not. However, according to Quinn and Musella, that proved impossible.

From their statement (Dec. 20, 2017 meeting statement):

The three of us [Quinn, Musella and Peterson] could not come to a consensus on certain key issues, leaving us at an impasse before Peterson would provide complete comments. We have incorporated comments that Peterson did provide. We do not represent that the comments attributed to him fully articulate his position.

Those “key issues” are outlined in their statement here:

The major points of contention were: (1) whether we could all agree to accept as fact the pension documents prepared by Peterson (last spring for the teachers’ arbitration), and the data they contained without independent review; (2) whether we could accept as fact that projected expenditures will reach $100 million without complete supporting documentation; and (3) Peterson’s assertion that we agreed to have Cienki and Todd approve this joint statement before distribution.

In interviews last week with both Quinn and Musella, they said that Peterson and Cienki in particular were very unhappy with the teachers contract approved by the School Committee last spring after protracted negotiations.

“Their position was the School Committee absolutely gave away the store on the teachers contract,” said Quinn.

In that contract, teachers got no raise for the first year, a 2 percent raise in year two and a 2.25 percent raise in year three (in addition to previously negotiated step increases). But the teachers also agreed to health savings account (HSA) insurance, which is anticipated to lower health care costs for the district considerably.

Quinn and Musella said Peterson dominated the discussion on the tax levy and pensions. According to Quinn, Peterson arrived at the meeting with a stack of papers 18 inches high.

“Our intention was to understand the town council’s point of view, not Stuart Peterson’s,” Musella said.

Quinn said Todd’s assertion that the tax levy would jump to $100 million in 15 years was based on 4 percent tax increases (the maximum allowed) for the next 15 years. Tax increases in recent years (there was a tax decrease this year) have averaged in the 2 to 2. 5 percent range.

“I presented my argument that it wasn’t going to go up 4 percent every year,” Quinn said. To counter that, Peterson argued that deferred maintenance at the schools would increase the number. He also said interest rates would increase.

“We said, show us your computations,” Quinn said.

The unfunded pension liability discussion has centered on Cienki’s insistence that the state’s rate of return is too optimistic. But, Quinn said, if Peterson is correct that interest rates are going to go up, “that solves your investment return problem.”

“The meeting seemed to raise more questions than it actually answered,” Musella said. “Like, why did they invite Stuart Peterson to present this information instead of them?”

“At the end of the day,” said Quinn, “I would like to see policy driven by more careful analysis and more grounded in data. If we moved it a little closer to that [by meeting], it was worth it.”

Repeated attempts to contact Cienki for confirmation went unanswered. Todd and Peterson also failed to return phone calls.

A collection of documents and data referred to during the Dec. 20 meeting can be found here.