2014-06-19 / Around Town

School Committee Hears Recommendations

By Barry Bridges

After concluding its work in studying how Newport officials can better control the costs of running the city and identifying potential areas of increased revenue, the Finance Review Committee (FRC) recently presented its school recommendations to School Committee members at a special workshop.

FRC members Ron Becker, Louisa Boatwright, and Ken Nomiyama led the discussions with the leadership on Tuesday, June 17 and reviewed possible ways to improve the bottom line with the challenged school budget.

A suggestion to hire a shared grant coordinator/writer for the schools and the city seemed to garner support among attendees. The proposed position would be centralized, with the person focused more on the larger process rather than on grant writing. Consolidating the tasks with one person would presumably relieve work burdens for city and school staff.

The FRC also recommended that steps be taken to re-energize career and tech programs, which have seen declining enrollments of non-Newport students and loss of tuition revenues.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain said that she had looked at tech programs with area superintendents. They discussed whether tuition rates should be revisited and whether marketing efforts should begin earlier. Speaking to the substance of the offerings, she said “students are not afraid to leave their sending schools if it is a meaningful program.”

Jermain hopes that Perkins grants, which provide federal funds for vocational-technical education programs and services, will be better leveraged to realize their full potential in assisting the district. She is attending a leadership program at Harvard University in July to explore how to rebrand and rebuild these programs and is hoping that the efforts will bear fruit before the new school year.

Another FRC recommendation is to conduct an evaluation to examine the high per-student costs experienced in Newport. The most recent data indicates that total spending per student is $20,217, the fifth highest figure in the state and thousands more than figures reported in Middletown and Portsmouth. Nomiyama maintained that efficiencies must somehow be identified to reduce controllable costs.

Consistent with this goal, Jermain reported that she has asked the Rhode Island Department of Education to perform a Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA) analysis so that Newport per-student figures can be more easily compared to other districts. This process will provide uniform and comparable financial information across all state schools and districts to “give us some data as a starting point to find areas where we can improve,” she said.

School committee member Rebecca Bolan pointed out that some differences between systems will always exist. For example, Newport receives Title I grants based on student demographics that Portsmouth does not, making it difficult to have an apples-to-apples analysis.

Similarly, Boatwright discussed unique aspects of the Newport schools which contribute to higher per-student costs, including the cost of employee benefits and the receipt of grant monies. She also said that the public is not necessarily aware of these dynamics. “We have [grant] incomes that others don’t and we should be able to articulate that,” she said.

In response to Thomas Phelan’s statement that Newport should be compared to “like districts” such as Woonsocket, Jermain said that UCOA will offer those types of distinctions.

The idea of combining the school and city finance organizations into one integrated department prompted the most debate of the afternoon and was met with some resistance from School Committee members. The proposal calls for a finance director who would have dual reporting lines to the superintendent and city manager. The consolidated office would handle day-to-day functions such as accounting, payroll, purchasing, and account receivables and payable, with the budgeting function remaining exclusively with the schools.

Nomiyama contended that such an arrangement has worked nicely in Westerly and East Providence.

Jo Eva Gaines said, “My problem with this is that it sounds like ‘splitting the baby.” Westerly is having problems with this and is looking to uncouple the departments.” Robert Power vehemently objected to the proposal, asserting that “the business manager is tied to the hip of the superintendent. I cannot envision two different masters where one will have to win out on priorities.” Sandra Flowers expressed hesitancy in light of “peculiar characteristics” of the schools.

On the other side of the issue, Robert Leary emphasized that a similar suggestion has been heard many times through the years, but with no action. “I strongly recommend we do it this time,” he said. Phelan agreed, noting that “the city should know what we’re doing, and this is where a finance director would come in really handy.” Boatwright supported the concept, advising the School Committee that “All your eggs in one basket can be fragile, but your business is educating students. Numbers are a by-product.”

Other suggestions in the extensive report include a two-year budget planning process with the city; a reserve account to cushion monetary fluctuations; and a capital account to cover property and capital maintenance needs. Finally, FRC members hope to form a standing finance committee to assist the city and schools going forward.

Nomiyama promised that the FRC will follow up and monitor the progress of its report down the road, whether particular items are implemented or rejected. “We will hold [City Council] to some degree of accountability for this package of recommendations,” he said.

Becker commented, “We’re trying not to end up on a shelf somewhere.”

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