May 13, 2017 – The Town Council is about to embark on its budget process for fiscal year 2018 with a public hearing Monday, May 15, at Swift Community Center (moved to EGHS if there is an overflow crowd) at 7 p.m.
Town Manager Tom Coyle’s proposed budget would lower the tax rate by 43 cents. That is achieved despite increases to every town department by level funding the EG School District, which is 55 percent of the town’s overall budget.
In his budget message, Coyle wrote that the level funding is “pending the results of a financial analysis being conducted by the consultants on the school district’s budget.”
Results of the audit have not been released but Coyle said Friday he hoped the results would be in before the Town Council voted on the final budget (which needs to be done by June 10). The consultants will also be auditing the town’s finances. It is unclear when that audit will be conducted.
The School Committee, meanwhile, approved a budget in April that called for the town’s funding (or “allocation” as it is referred to in town documents) to be increased by 4 percent. Each percentage point equals $340,192, so the difference between the two budgets at the outset of the town’s budget process is $1.36 million.
In addition, the school department is reporting a $560,000 budget deficit for this fiscal year (2017). Before passing its budget April 4, the School Committee cut six staff positions (four paraprofessionals, one library media specialist, one second grade teacher) and a chunk of its facilities and maintenance budget, which lowered the budget by $741,000. They also took more than 50 percent – $919,000 – of the EGSD surplus fund balance.
The $560,000 deficit from this year is a result of higher-than-anticipated costs in three main areas, according to schools Supt. Victor Mercurio: kindergarten, transportation, and special education.
Mercurio said they had to add a kindergarten class after a spike in enrollment between the time the budget was passed last June and the start of the school year.
With transportation, the district ended up paying for one additional bus last fall after bus company cost estimates for going from a three-tier system to a two-tier system proved too rosy.
Special education costs were also higher than had been budgeted. Special ed budgeting is challenging, according to Mercurio. One child moving into the district can potentially change the budget dramatically if that child needs a lot of supports or attends a specialized out-of-district school. Out-of-district placements rose significantly between June and October last year, he said.
But there’s another factor at play when it comes to the school district – according to figures from the state Dept. of Education, the district has added 113 students in the past five years, a 4.5 percent increase. In the five years before that, the district’s enrollment held largely steady.
Over those same years, the town’s allocation to the schools averaged just over 2 percent.
Over those same years, the high school implemented a 1:1 program for students in which each student was equipped with a Chromebook.
Over those same years, the state mandated full-day kindergarten, essentially doubling the number of staff needed for kindergarten.
“Trying to institute large-scale initiatives while enrollment is up is not easy,” Mercurio said. “When the numbers go up, the contractual and IEP requirements don’t go away.”
There has been substantial residential interest in the budget this year and on Friday, May 12, East Greenwich teachers announced they would be attending the hearing as a “silent protest” of the three-year contract they signed in April.
The budget hearing Monday is set to take place at Swift Community Center at 7 p.m. Swift has a capacity of 250 people. If more than 250 people attend the hearing, it will be moved to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School, Coyle said.
Town Manager Coyle said the meeting is not just being moved to EGHS ahead of time because it was advertised as being held at Swift. Meeting agendas (including the venue) must be posted on the Secretary of State’s website at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting.