2014-05-15 / Front Page

Fiscal House Gets Put In Order

By Barry Bridges

With the academic year moving toward its close, the Newport School Committee discussed office staffing, budgets, and graduation rates at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, May 13.

In personnel matters, the committee debated whether an accountant should be added in the schools’ business office. Most on the committee agreed that assistance is needed in light of the office’s significant responsibilities in financial reporting, payroll, purchasing, and contracts. However, Committee member Robert Leary objected in principle, underscoring the fact that there are ongoing talks of combining the school department’s business functions with the city’s. He felt that a merged office could prevent the need for an extra hire. Arguing to the contrary, committee member Robert Power emphasized that the issue is a continuing one, as the office has absorbed too many cuts compared to its duties. Further, while he agreed that consolidating functions could gain efficiencies in some circumstances, he was doubtful that accounting was the best place to start in bringing things under the same umbrella. Committee member Thomas Phelan agreed with Power. “For two years we’ve been behind [in these functions] and we’ve been trying to catch up. Having someone now will make things a lot easier.” Vice chair Jo Eva Gaines concurred, maintaining that “they need help, even if there is some type of merger between the two business offices.”

Superintendent Colleen Jermain echoed these sentiments, stating that an additional employee was necessary regardless of office consolidation. “I hear the merger talk, but we have to have an even playing field before that happens. No matter what, we will need another person to come in.”

The new hire was approved on a 6 to 1 vote, with Leary opposing the move.

Jermain next provided the committee with updates on ongoing budget concerns. She reported that after a supplemental appropriation from the City Council in April, a $359,000 deficit remains for the 2014 fiscal year. She is in further talks with the council and has asked the city to consider covering an additional $222,000 in nonrecurring onetime expenditures. That would leave $137,000 in the red, but Jermain was confident that this more manageable amount could be absorbed across the rest of the school year.

The 2015 budget is being developed. Committee members will meet on Tuesday, May 20 to discuss the numbers before the proposal is submitted to City Council for review on May 22.

The committee also received graduation data for the Rogers Class of 2014. There are 103 possible graduates this year, with 78 students currently on track to meet the requirements necessary for walking across the stage. The remaining 25 pupils may be at risk because of academic reasons or NECAP scores.

This information prompted a larger discussion about graduation rates within the district. Committee member Rebecca Bolan said, “We have a problem. Right now, our graduation rate is the second worst in the state, behind Woonsocket.” Referencing the 103 seniors, she reminded everyone that the same class had 161 freshmen. Her online research informed her that some of the students who dropped out are now involved with guns and drugs. “We all need to own this; as a community we have to fix the issue.”

Rogers High School Assistant Principal Chris Fisher described the proactive steps being taken to identify students’ struggling points and said that everyone is striving for better accountability. Jermain offered that more real time solutions are being implemented, rather than waiting for later corrective efforts such as summer school.

Committee member Sandra Flowers stated that, while she is concerned about the rate, she is confident that the students are actually seeing achievement and success as opposed to just being pushed through high school. “Kids really have to earn their diploma, and that to me is as important as raising our graduation rate,” she said. In other business: n The committee unanimously approved a price increase in school meal rates proposed by Director of Administrative Services Joan Tracey. Lunches will increase by 15 cents, while breakfasts will increase by 5 cents. Next year at Pell Elementary, breakfast will be $1 while lunch will be $2.25. At Thompson and Rogers, breakfast will be $1.25 and lunch will be $2.50. Tracey noted that Newport is still charging less than nearby districts, and indicated that setting prices is a balancing act between covering costs and charging the lowest price possible to ensure that students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals can still afford to eat. n Monies were approved so that AESOP, the program that the district uses to keep track of teacher attendance, sick leave, and substitutes, can be improved to work together more seamlessly with the finance system. This will improve efficiency and eliminate the need for a person to intervene and transpose the information. The committee put $6,500 toward the integration. n Jermain presented a homeless report showing that the number of impacted families with schoolaged children has doubled since September. She wanted the committee to be aware of the issue, as it affects educational access. It also highlights the importance of the city’s existing programs and partners serving those in need. n Jermain shared projected costs for the early learning center proposed for the former John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Middletown. Newport is requesting three classrooms and two offices. The annual cost of the five rooms and associated expenses is estimated at $44,000.

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