Above: School Committee Chair Carolyn Mark talks with consultant Mike D’Amico after the meeting.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

With little fanfare and only two comments from the public, the School Committee Tuesday night voted 6-1 in favor of a $39.5 million total budget for fiscal year 2020, including a town appropriation of $36.4 million. That’s an increase of $1 million or 2.88 percent from 2019, more than a point below the 4 percent increase limit set by state law.

By Town Charter, the School Committee must pass a budget by April 15.

Budget hearings have been far more laborious and dramatic in recent years, with potential cuts to things like athletics, foreign language offerings, nurses and classroom aides, prompting large turnouts and extended public comment that was really more like public pleading. And that was just to get to a 4 percent ask from the town.

The School Committee discusses the 2020 budget with consultant Mike D’Amico Tuesday.

This year, more than half of additional $1 million – $600,000 – is needed to cover a projected reduction in state aid next year. Instead of cutting positions, the budget includes about $500,000 for added personnel, including the full cost of a director of administration, i.e. finance director, for an additional $96,000 and $150,000 for added IT personnel. It also includes $52,000 for a chorus teacher at the high school, a position that has gone unfunded for the past two years.

Town and school finance consultant Mike D’Amico said he was able to absorb the state cut and add the personnel through a few different methods. First, he cut the line item for capital from $300,000 to $50,000, with a plan to pay for deferred capital projects and maintenance through a $5 million bond referendum (see below).

Another budgeting change was to take certain items, such as the amount allowed for conferences each year, and budget what’s been spent historically instead of the maximum allowed.

D’Amico said some of the trouble in recent years may have been caused by the over-budgeted teacher salary line. He overhauled each budget line, including the teacher salary line, so it better reflected what was actually being spent every year. Instead of having the teacher salary line crowding out spending on other things and creating unnecessary battles for those items such as nurses and athletics funding, the money is now allocated according to what actually has been spent in recent years.

“You budget to the middle,” D’Amico said of his process after the meeting.

He said the $1 million increase was made up of the drop in state aid ($600,000), plus increase in personnel ($500,000), plus raises for custodians and paraprofessionals, contracted transportation increases and inflation costs ($150,000), minus that $250,000 usually budgeted for capital maintenance, for a total ask of just north of $1 million.

For context, Supt. Victor Mercurio said, East Greenwich spends $15,886 per pupil, putting the district 28th out of Rhode Island’s 36 districts; the state average is $17,309 (based on 2017 R.I. Dept. of Education statistics).

One of the challenges of this budget, however, is the contract for teachers – by far the largest of the three collective bargaining units. It expires the end of August, but the town’s 2020 budget (which includes the schools) must be approved by mid-June with the fiscal year starting July 1.

According to D’Amico, there is no money for a teacher raise in the just-approved 2020 budget.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark declined to comment on the subject.

“It’s not appropriate ever for us to discuss raises or any other matter subject in the collective bargaining process,” she said.

In the current three-year contract, teachers got no raise the first year, a 2 percent raise the second year and a 2.25 percent raise in year three. A 1 percent raise would cost the district around $180,000, D’Amico said.

Negotiations between the school district and the union begin later this month, Mark said.

The lone dissenting vote on the budget came from Committee member Anne Musella, who said she could not vote for the budget without additional information, specifically with regard to central office employees.

“The programmatic audit report from last September included several recommendations regarding our central office staff,” she wrote in a text message about her vote. “We have not as a School Committee discussed those items – the extent to which we may or may not agree with them, or the extent to which a more robust use of technology might streamline some of the duties of our existing employees…. I think we have a responsibility to the community to gain a better understanding of how we are spending taxpayers’ education dollars, and clarity on our actual operational needs.”

Meanwhile, the School Committee voted 6-0 with one abstention to approve a resolution asking the Town Council to put that $5 million capital maintenance bond referendum referenced above before voters this fall. Last November, state voters approved making $250 million available to school districts for building maintenance. Projects undertaken by school districts could be eligible for up to a 50 percent reimbursement through RIDE.

The district has identified $5 million in capital and maintenance projects, from replacing tennis courts at Cole ($400,000) and classroom cabinetry at Eldredge ($181,125) to security upgrades ($635,000) and IT infrastructure ($700,000) at all six schools. Find the full list here: Schools Capital Improvements Plan.

Musella abstained from the vote, saying she had not had enough time to review the resolution since it was only just given to members Tuesday evening.

The committee continued a discussion on a revised memorandum of understanding with the town over the decision to de-consolidate the finance director position. Under the agreement, they would still share a human resources manager.