It now goes to the town for review amid a fast-changing pandemic-induced fiscal scene
In East Greenwich, the School Committee always have to submit its budget to the town with some “known unknowns” – in particular what state aid will turn out to be. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, those known unknowns are vast.
But the School Committee must send its budget to the town by May 1 and Tuesday night the panel voted 6-1 to approve a $41.9 million budget, which is a $2.3 million increase over this year’s budget. The town’s share of that would be $37.8 million, a 3.8 percent increase over what the town gave the schools this year. By state law, the district cannot ask for a more than 4 percent increase from the town; last year, the district got a 2.9 percent increase. Find the EGSD budget presentation HERE.
“This is just a step in the process,” said School Committee Chair Carolyn Mark at the start of the discussion. “The Town Council might not vote on their budget until the end of June.”
Among the unknowns:
- State aid – This year, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget released in (pre-pandemic) January included a nearly $700,000 increase in state aid for East Greenwich, an unusual if welcome windfall, partly reflecting increased enrollment. With state finances now in shambles, it’s now very uncertain what the state will be able to provide next year.
- Federal aid – The state is getting $1.2 billion in federal CARES money to help pay expenses caused by COVID-19 and there is now talk of an additional package targeting cities and towns. Gov. Raimondo said this week she is still waiting for guidance on how the CARES money can be spent.
- Savings because of distance learning – The School Committee was able to cut more than $300,000 from this year’s transportation budget after coming to agreement with Ocean State Transit to pay a third of the cost for April through June, when no buses will most likely be running at all. The vote approving that partial payment took place Tuesday night (find that story HERE). There may be other savings too.
There are some knowns:
- Enrollment is up – Since 2014-15, enrollment has increased by 164 students, to 2,576. After years of increase, class sizes have reached tipping points, with schools no longer able to accommodate more students without adding teachers. Class size is dictated by the teachers contract. This year, the district had to add an extra fifth grade teacher at Eldredge. Next year, it is anticipated Cole Middle School and EG High School will both need two additional teachers. The extra fifth grade class will not be needed but an extra first grade class will.
- Step increases are high for FY2021 – Step increases, mandated by state law, can vary. It happens that next year, a number of teachers will be moving to the top step, at a cost of $390,000. Teacher raises account for another $300,000; pay increases for paraprofessionals and custodians add another $70,000. The total wage increase for FY2021 is $761,000.
- Unbudgeted expenses in FY2020 – Federal grant money came in $221,000 less than anticipated and a number of items added after the start of the fiscal year (including that fifth grade teacher mentioned two bullets up) mean a total budget shortfall of $511,000 (that includes the grant decrease).
So the budget passed by the School Committee Tuesday night will be revised. That much is certain.
“Realistically, asking for a 3.85 percent [increase from the town] in this environment doesn’t make much sense,” said Committeeman Jeff Dronzek. “We have to put a number forward and work hard to work with the town.”
Committeewoman Anne Musella voted against the budget because she thought the School Committee should use all the time allowed (it has until May 1 and so could meet again). She noted things are changing quickly and the panel could have more answers even in a week’s time.
Others on the committee did not agree.
“We’ll have an opportunity to have a joint conversation with the town,” said Mark. “It’s always challenging to adopt a budget as early as we do in the spring … especially this year.”
Tuesday’s meeting marked the last School Committee meeting with interim Supt. Frank Pallotta, who completes his time as interim the end of this month. Alexis Meyer, director of teaching and learning for the district, will take over as superintendent May 1.
Committee members thanked Pallotta for providing steadfast leadership during an unexpectedly tumultuous few months. Not only did he have to contend with the unprecedented move to distance learning but the district lost its finance director and finance assistant. Pallotta and Meyer both thanked town Finance Director Trish Sunderland and Town Manager Andrew Nota for their help with the budget process.
The School Committee meets next on May 5. It will meet in joint session with the Town Council on May 11 to review the FY2019 audit. They meet again with the Town Council to discuss the FY2021 budget on May 26.
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