Now it goes to the Town Council, which has the final say on what it will give to the district next year
The East Greenwich School Committee unanimously approved a $43.8 million preliminary fiscal year 2022 budget Tuesday night, a 3.97 percent increase over this year’s $42.1 million budget. The budget includes a $38.9 million appropriation from the town, which is a 3.43 increase over last year’s appropriation – within the 4 percent limit set by the state. Meanwhile, the district is slated to get a $1 million boost in state education aid, going from $3.4 million this year to $4.4 million in 2022.
“All of our work, and much of the work that we are doing in the district right now with regard to strategic planning is all about supporting our students and giving them the necessary support they need to be able to move on beyond high school, and engage in activities of their choice or areas that they are interested in,” Supt. Alexis Meyer said at the meeting. “And the most important piece, among everything else here is when we look at our vision of a graduate, of a knowledgeable student, a connected student, a reflective student and a student that has a set of competencies, that is reflective of all means all for every student that’s in our district.”
The largest driver of the budget increase in 2022 is personnel, which School Committee Chairwoman Anne Musella said is usually the case, due to increases in salaries and benefits. The budget also asks for the creation of four new full-time positions and two new part-time positions, although at least one of these positions would be funded initially through federal CARES Act funds.
Personnel salaries and benefits make up about 70 percent of the proposed budget. Other high-cost areas include outside purchased services such as transportation, supplies such as textbooks and electricity, and building improvements.
Musella said her two biggest concerns regarding the budget were transportation costs and custodial costs. She said this year’s transportation contract had a 6.7 percent increase, and the district does not currently know what next year’s increase will be.
In addition, cleaning costs have been higher this year because of COVID protocols and could go yet higher, depending on the outcome of a cleaning audit currently being done.
“I’m concerned because we should not be paying for transportation or custodial services out of our fund balance,” Musella said. “I’m afraid that if we don’t have an appropriately accurate estimate at this juncture, we’re backing ourselves into that corner.”
Meyer said that she understands Musella’s concerns and estimates the 2021-22 school year transportation contract to include an increase of about 5 percent. Regarding the custodial audit, Meyer said they need to wait until it’s complete, but School Committee member Alyson Powell said they do have some information.
“Our preliminary results, even not with the COVID standard, suggest we need to significantly increase our custodial staff to meet those levels because we aren’t doing so currently,” Powell said. The audit was undertaken in conjunction with planned building projects, but coincided with the pandemic and heightened cleaning requirements.
In addition to the town appropriation, other revenue sources include rental income, donations, and federal funds through different “title” programs and Medicaid payments. School Committeewoman Lori McEwen said if the district receives additional funds – particularly federal money through the CARES Act known as “ESSER” funds – they should consider using those funds to provide extra help to students who’ve faced a “learning loss” because of the pandemic.
“That is an expensive undertaking, but it is what the research tells us works best for helping students instead of putting students into remedial kinds of situations,” McEwen said.
In an interview after the meeting, Musella said planning this year’s budget was less challenging than last year because there were fewer unknowns regarding the pandemic and outside aid.
“Last year the process was quite unusual on two fronts,” Musella said. “Not only did we have to wrap our arms around our COVID-related expenses but we had no sense of our revenues. The state finalized the budget extraordinarily late. We didn’t know what additional funding we’d get. I think we have a much better grasp on our COVID-related expenses this year.”
Now that the School Committee has approved its budget, the superintendent will present it to the town manager. Musella said the School Committee and Town Council to hold a joint meeting to discuss the budget but the ultimate decision about how much the town will give to the schools is up to the council, which must approve a budget by June 30.
Once the School Committee knows what it is getting from the town, it will then make any necessary adjustments (i.e. cuts if the town gives less than the $38.9 million the School Committee is asking for) and vote to approve a final budget before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1.
Musella is optimistic that the process will move forward smoothly.
“I’d like to think that with Town Council members and the town manager at several meetings throughout the process, our budget has been clear and transparent and there have been opportunities to ask [questions],” she said. “We have a Town Council that recognizes that our school system is one of the crown jewels of our town, it’s why people move here. I’m very grateful for that.”