School Employees Plead With Council to Fully Fund School Budget

by | Apr 30, 2024

‘We’ve learned over time that you don’t wait until the last minute to speak up.’

East Greenwich educators and other school staff took advantage of the public comment period at Monday’s Town Council meeting to urge the officials to fully fund the School Committee’s $41.3 million budget ask of the town, the largest part of the overall $50.3 million budget approved by the School Committee April 15.  

The Town Manager will be releasing the town’s overall budget for fiscal year 2025 (which goes from July 1, 2024, through June 30, 2025) by Wednesday, May 1. 

Maria Collins, a paraprofessional at Cole Middle School and head of the paraprofessionals union, was the first to take the podium. 

“I love my job,” Collins said. But, she added, she has to work two other jobs during the school year, as well as two summer jobs, in order to make ends meet. “A majority of my colleagues are barely scraping by,” she said. She noted she makes $22.20 an hour after 20 years on the job and that new hires start at $17.86 an hour.

Collins also said that inadequate pay had left the district short-staffed, increasing her own workload, and ultimately harming students. 

”We are here today to ask the Town Council to fully fund the School Committee’s budget request,” Collins concluded. “To make sure the next time a student feels overwhelmed, there will be a paraprofessional like me to help bring them back into the class, and to make sure they’re safe and feeling supported. That’s what our students deserve.”

Donna McPhee, a teacher at Frenchtown and head of the teachers union, called the School Committee’s requested budget “bare-bones,” adding, “We are not asking for extra. We are not asking for more than what is absolutely necessary to run the schools.”

After the meeting, she added: “The School Committee didn’t ask us to come. We’ve learned over time that you don’t wait until the last minute to speak up.” 

The Town Council’s responses reflected the simmering tensions between the town and the school district. In addition to thanking the employees for their service and testimonies, councilors encouraged them to take their concerns directly to the School Committee. 

“We appropriate the money, but we don’t tell the schools what to do with the money,” said Councilor Caryn Corenthal. 

Council President Schwager emphasized that the issues of wages, benefits, and working conditions are negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement between the unions and the district. “We can’t engage in that conversation,” he said. “The issue of the town appropriating money for schools is not something that will directly address your concerns.” 

Members of the council including Councilor Renu Englehart and Councilor Michael Zarrella, as well as Town Manager Andrew Nota, also expressed concerns with budget line discrepancies and the lack of detail in the School Committee’s budget. 

Educators returned to the podium to express their frustration with the councilors’ response. 

“You’re missing the point,” said Beth Gorter, a library media specialist. It’s not just about salaries, she said, but serving students and enabling the district to live up to its reputation. 

Frenchtown teacher and EG resident Judy Greenberg directly addressed the antagonism between the Town Council and School Committee. 

“These two bodies in our town can’t seem to get their act together,” she said. “What does not give me confidence – with all due respect – what I just heard was that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

“And we are the collateral damage.” she said. 

Councilor Englehart responded by attributing the lack of communication to the School Committee, apologizing for “what has been perceived to have happened.”

“I am completely sympathetic, but we’re not just responsible for this,” she said. 

Council President Schwager encouraged all those who spoke to participate in the budget discussion that will take place at a public hearing May 13. 

Councilor Zarrella ended the discussion by again expressing his gratitude to school district employees, as well as apologizing, saying: “I’m sorry that you feel like pawns in the chess game.” 

After the meeting, Councilor Corenthal expanded on her comments. 

“I don’t doubt that they need every penny of what they asked for and probably more but we just don’t have it,” she said. “I think they are working on behalf of the schools and they want to get the most money from us that they can,” she said. “I understand that. I think all of us do support the schools. But we don’t have unlimited funds.”

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Eugene Quinn
Eugene Quinn
May 2, 2024 9:18 am

The RI Department of Education publishes a Fiscal Accountability Report that compares finances across school districts. It shows that the East Greenwich School Department is a lean and efficient operation. In 2010, the school appropriation was cut by $2 million, and since then has been on a straight-line trajectory that increases $750,000 per year (1.9% of last year’s appropriation). [property tax data school appropriation data]

This is not enough to cover the increases we see in unfunded mandates and statutory requirements, and makes it impossible for us to perform critical maintenance we have been forced to postpone year after year. I voted in favor of a funding request that exceeds last years by 5.4% because it partially addresses the maintenance issues. I’ve been paying property taxes in this town for 46 years and I don’t want to see the infrastructure our taxes built gradually fall apart.

Property_Tax_and_School_Appropriation
Mind Changed
Mind Changed
May 2, 2024 7:28 pm

If the town really doesn’t have the money… Why not? Where is it going? Our spend per pupil is comparatively low to other similar towns yet our tax revenue per capital is quite high. The only conclusion can be that we are spending more per capita on other services than our peer towns. The town should be able to afford – and hold everyone accountable to achieve – the best school system in the state.

Hank Littleton
Hank Littleton
May 5, 2024 6:58 am
Reply to  Mind Changed

Well said Mind Changed, maybe a financial study of all town departments to see where we stand in comparison to towns of similar size would set all the residents at ease. Based on a review of the towns previous budgets a deep financial review of the FD would be an excellent start, we were told years ago by the council at the time that the merger of the Fire District into the Town was going to be “ better governance” from what I’m told it’s been anything but that.

Eugene Quinn
Eugene Quinn
May 13, 2024 3:24 pm

Foils from the School Committee Finance and Revenue Committee meeting 5/13/2024.

http://eugenequinnforegschools.org/Financial_Analysis_2024_2025_V3.html

Most models give an expected annual increase in the $775-$820k range for the last 15 years, with a noise standard deviation of $480k. This model is entirely consistent with numbers cited by the Town Manager of $980k per year for the most recent five years. There is no upward trend in the expected appropriation.

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