2015-06-11 / Front Page

Agreement Reached on Shared Services

By James Merolla

On Tuesday, June 9, the Newport School Committee voted 5-2 to pass a resolution to seek collaboration and cooperation between the municipal and educational side of city government, something that has been discussed between the two entities for a decade.

On Wednesday, June 10, the Newport City Council voted unanimously to accept the same resolution as its own (with two amendments, to add relevant statutory provisions). But who will decide what when and how much is yet to be clarified in the fiscal year to come on July 1.

The document is intended to streamline government, foster collaboration and save each side hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

In their first collaborative effort of the next fiscal year, the City Council unanimously voted to meet the School Committee's full funding request of $935,086 for 2016, the full four percent maximum increase allowed by state law in the council's first reading of next year's budget on Wednesday night. Both sides took it a good sign to come.

What was highly unusual in the school adoption of the resolution was that the wording was not finalized at the time of the vote and was edited only AFTER the schools passed it and sent it the next evening to the council.

School committee members Robert Leary – who for 10 years has pushed for this collaborative effort between the municipal and educational halves of the city – voted against the resolution due to its confusion and unclear language, as did committee member David Carlin III who protested that the unfinished and still-to-be-edited document was foisted upon him only minutes before his board called for the vote to adopt or reject it.

The final resolution – approved in concept hours before but edited hours later – reads like this:

"RESOLVED: that the Newport City Council and the Newport School Committee shall:

1. Share services by consolidating the technology services of the City and School Department to provide more efficient and costsaving practices through outsourcing oversight of systems.

2. Share services by combining facilities maintenance under a City-employed Facilities Manager who will work with the Superintendent to facilitate building safety, cleanliness, and management and operations.

3. Combine all purchasing functions under the City Purchasing Agent and realign the payroll processes to better meet the needs of the City Finance Director. The School Superintendent, working with the Administrative Services and Business Manager, will ensure that school employees change or adapt current processes to conform to the City’s purchasing policies and procedures to better streamline operations and resources of time, personnel, and money. The City Purchasing Agent will familiarize him/herself with School requirements, ordinances, and any applicable RI Department of Education requirements.

4. Implement accounting and payroll processes under the direction of the City Finance Director, and supported by the Superintendent of Schools. All governmental responsibilities of the School Superintendent and School Committee, as otherwise described in State Law, will remain completely intact.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED by the Newport School Committee that this resolution, with the passage of a companion resolution by the City Council, shall take effect on July 1, 2015."

Several committee members felt that the wording of the approved resolution was convoluted, and not clear enough in its delineations of control.

Carlin wanted to table the passage of the resolution because he said it was first presented to him with possible changes just before the meeting and he didn’t have time to study it.

“We should see something in front of us in writing much, much before the start of a school committee meeting. I’m extremely disappointed by the process,” said Carlin.

“I will be voting against this right now. I’m a little confused. I never thought I would vote against shared services,” added Leary, who said that since 2005 various studies, reports and voters’ polls all supported combining services, collaboration between the two sides of city government and streamlining the budget.

“We’ve been discussing this for 10 years,” said Leary.

“This year I think we made a gigantic leap forward. I have to credit the superintendent and [school finance director] Joan Tracey for their willingness to travel to City Hall two or three times a week to listen to the council and their intention in order to improve the relationship between the two bodies and to better serve the kids of Newport,” said School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines, who told the council the next night, “This was a long time coming. Good things do happen if you wait long enough.”

After fearing a shortfall as great as $1.41 million this school year, the projected final deficit for the schools will be $1,070,094 after a capital improvement fund transfer last week. The City Council sent $200,000 over to the present school budget by taking over the Triplett Elementary School building, eliminating the need to repair the roof on that school that was budgeted in fiscal 2014-2015. The resolution, in part, will help curb such shortfalls in theory.

Before she voted for it, school committee member Kathleen Silvia was concerned that the city council would have authority over the school superintendent with the resolution. Committee member David Hanos objected to the word “direction” in the resolution, implying that the council would direct the school committee and superintendent as to what to budget, how to budget, and how much.

But others were elated.

“This is a great step in collaboration with the city. One city united working for the good of all our citizens and our children, and, most importantly, of all citizens, one Newport,” said School Superintendent Colleen Jermain of the greater purpose of the document beyond the final wording.

But Carlin did not share her joy. “I know collaboration is the intent. I appreciate and respect that and I support that. I support the council’s cooperation,” he said. “But we are relinquishing, in my opinion, what is a School Committee and a school department duty, a right: Taking purchasing out of our hands and realigning budgets and sharing services and (their) maintenances under a city’s control.

“We’re turning many of the functions over to the city council. I say to you, my colleagues, we are turning over our responsibilities tonight. If that is your will, so be it. I’ll be voting against it,” he added.

Jermain said she was “comfortable” with the resolution as written. “The superintendent and editors will work on cleaning this up,” said Gaines. They did so overnight.

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