School Committee Argues to Preserve Budget Request

by | May 23, 2021

They meet with the Town Council Tuesday for further 2022 budget discussions

Anne Musella wants to set the record straight: the School Committee, of which she is chair, has crafted a careful budget for fiscal year 2022, one that recognizes continuing COVID uncertainties but which also responds to the specific needs of the EG school district. 

“We’ve had six meetings specifically on the budget and they are all identified as budget meetings on the annual SC meeting calendar. And we discuss and on that basis, we approve a preliminary budget,” she said in an interview last week.

That budget went to Town Manager Andy Nota in April, who then put together his own budget proposal, one that is now before the Town Council. Nota’s budget reduces by $600,000 the amount of money requested by the School Committee. He suggested the School Committee should use $400,000 of its surplus (i.e. fund balance or rainy day fund) to make up two thirds of that difference and cut $200,000 in expenditures for the other third, saying he thought they could find “two or three times that amount.” 

One argument Nota made is that the school district is essentially a department of the town, a big department, but a department. And individual departments don’t need surplus accounts the way the town is required to have. If the school district/department gets in a financial jam, the town would have to bail it out. 

But for Musella and others on the School Committee, it’s not that simple. 

“To what extent is the school department a department of the town? It is and it isn’t,” Musella said. “It is a part of the overall town budget, yes. However, the school department is beholden to a statutory and regulatory framework that necessitates its own governing body.”

For instance, she said, Supt. Alexis Meyer does not report to the town manager like the fire chief or police chief does. 

In addition, she said, school district expenses are more variable than the town’s, noting four students who enrolled in North Kingstown’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program in the span of a week last August, at a total cost to the district of $60,000. And, too, the budget can face the addition of new enrollees at any time who may require special services or might prompt the need to open an additional classroom because of class-size limits. Having surplus funds could allow the district to avoid a deficit. 

“The town doesn’t have that type of volatility,” Musella said. “Our needs, our requirements, our mandated costs are part of a whole separate framework.”

Musella also touched on other factors that went into their proposed budget. 

“We’re coming out of a COVID year. We are getting a disproportionately low amount of federal funding” compared to most other districts in the state. And while there was a dip in enrollment this past year due to what Musella sees as COVID-related reasons (more homeschooling, more students moving to private schools that were able to be full in-person all year), the trend in recent years has been one of increasing enrollment. In fact, East Greenwich is one of only a couple districts in the state where enrollment is going up.

The state aid allocation is up $1 million – one of the indicators Nota pointed to in justifying his school budget allocation – but Musella said there were recent years with “extraordinarily low [state] allocations.”

At the School Committee meeting last Tuesday, member Tim Munoz, who heads the finance subcommittee, said it was important to look back over several years. 

“Historically, when you look year-to-year, you will see the fund balance is needed every year. So there’s some dissonance between the town and the schools on this point,” he said. “I don’t know why we would want to reduce [our fund balance] in a post COVID snapback year.”

Committeeman Gene Quinn at the same meeting noted the $400,000 Nota is proposed be spent out of the district’s fund balance represented less than 10 cents on the tax rate.

Musella said she looks forward to discussing budget issues with the Town Council, which in the end is the body that will decide just what the town’s budget – school allocation included – will be. 

“In terms of process, I think it’s important to have healthy, joint discussions on all of this,” she said. “It’s important to have open, honest, respectful conversation and let the community in on that.”

The Town Council is meeting Monday night and on their agenda, they will be talking about the budget. Find the agenda, including the virtual link, HERE. At 7 p.m.

For the joint Town Council-School Committee meeting Tuesday, find the joint meeting agenda, including the virtual link, HERE. At 6 p.m.

 

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