2013-12-12 / Around Town

School Committee Updates City Council on Budget

By Meg O'Neil

The Newport School Committee and City Council met briefly during a special joint workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 4 t discuss the school department's Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget.

School Committee Chairman Charles Shoemaker provided background on the difficulties the committee had encountered over the last several months in trying to develop a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In June, the projected deficit for the 2013-14 budget was $1,549,925. However, unexpected income of $450,000 from special education tuition and monies received from a new grant dwindled the deficit to $776,932 by the end of July.

In presenting a balanced budget as mandated by state law, the school committee voted in August to cut the $776,932 from special education funding. According to a written statement by Shoemaker, the committee knew the cut was not a realistic way to solve the deficit, but members hoped the city council would restore the money. Another option would have been a so-called “Caruolo Action,” with the school committee suing the city for more funding.

However, the balanced budget was upended at the start of this academic year, when the Teachers Association of Newport filed a grievance claiming violation of the maximum class size provisions in the teacher’s contract. Because of this, according to Shoemaker's written notes, the school committee agreed to hire another teacher and made other changes to the budget, including the restoration of some special education funds. Thus, what was once a "balanced" budget had once again become a deficit, this time at $401,252 in the red. This is the amount the school committee is officially requesting from the city council.

In his statements, Shoemaker suggested that in the future, finalizing the school budget in September instead of June would allow for additional planning and for more savings to be found in later budget sessions.

Additionally, the review of the 2013-14 budget revealed a net decrease in revenues; savings in personnel costs due to the consolidation of the city's four elementary schools into the Pell School (but with corresponding increases in pension and unemployment costs); increases in the cost of diesel for school buses; and increases in outside tuitions as a result of shifting Met School costs to the Newport district.

With 42 Newport students at the Met school and the district required to pay for them, some on the school committee and city council worried that the Newport Area Career and Technical Center would continue to lose students and become ineffective.

"When looking at today's economy and job market, we need to be preparing students for the jobs that are out there now and we're not doing that," said committee Vice-Chair Jo Eva Gaines. "We need to put more focus on what we're offering in the Vo/Tech Center. These kids at the Met are getting hands-on experience and we're not providing that. We need to up our game, bottom line."

City Councilor Kathryn Leonard and School Committee members Rebecca Bolan and Thomas Phelan were absent from the joint session.

The School Committee was scheduled for its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, but that meeting was canceled and rescheduled for Thursday, Dec. 12. It will mark the last official school committee session for Superintendent John Ambrogi, who is retiring in January.

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