2015-06-18 / Around Town

Committee Struggles to Reconcile Budget

By Barry Bridges

After receiving the good news on May 10 that the city agreed to fully fund a request for a $935,086 increase in its annual appropriation, the Newport School Committee has begun the daunting task of closing a remaining projected deficit for Fiscal 2016.

The City Council decided during its ongoing budget deliberations to boost the educational allotment by four percent, the maximum allowed under state law, to a total of $24.3 million for the school year beginning July 1. But the committee and school administrators must still grapple with an anticipated shortfall of over $1.3 million.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain reported at a workshop on Tuesday, June 16, that much of that deficiency will have to be made up through staff reductions. In late May, in what has become an annual rite of spring, layoff announcements went out to 28 school employees to comply with the legal requirement of issuing notice by June 1 to those with jobs that may be in jeopardy for the following academic year. In the past, many, if not all, of those personnel were recalled soon after the budget picture was finalized in June. However, considering the size of the looming deficit, a more significant number may be left on the sidelines in this cycle.

“We are looking at all areas for savings,” said Jermain, but she is proposing an action plan that would eliminate nine teaching positions. She declined to elaborate on the details and explained, “I would prefer that the principals have conversations with their staff before the information becomes public.” But she did report that that the affected positions would impact all three schools, with $399,633 realized from cuts in grades K-8 and $307,831 from Rogers High School.

Additional savings of around $200,000 may be sought in the administrative and support ranks, where new hires could be brought in at lower pay grades. Efficiencies gained by sharing services with the city pursuant to a joint resolution to consolidate supervisory functions in the IT, facilities, and accounting departments could also play into the picture.

The chair of the English Department at Rogers, Zinovia Canale, attended the meeting with several other teachers and reminded the board that their decisions have real world implications. She described how the cutbacks would sacrifice elective courses and would pose a risk to the district’s improved reading scores. “I am extraordinarily concerned about these proposals,” she told school leaders.

Committee member Robert Leary responded, “We have to make choices in a budget-cutting year. We can’t save everything.”

But even if all of Jermain’s staffing recommendations are eventually approved, additional savings or revenue sources amounting to $411,789 need to be identified to make ends meet.

“We are working on this every day,” reported Jermain. She is hopeful that monies can be found through ongoing discussions on out-of-district tuitions and transportation costs, but the committee launched into a brainstorming session to consider other ways to reconcile the numbers while continuing to meet the needs of the district’s students.

The ideas to save money ranged from the practical to the unlikely. Leary suggested limited kindergarten to half days, but his idea was quickly nixed. Other suggestions including examining changes to the Alternative Learning Program, reducing custodian overtime, finding efficiencies in grounds keeping, trash collection, and IT, and even asking the city to increase parking fees, with extra monies going into a special fund for the schools.

Committee member David Carlin advocated borrowing money from the interest generated from one of the system’s retirement trust funds. “I thoroughly understand the concept of building up a trust, but there is $5 million in this account,” he observed. Several members objected, and Leary said, “It’s only 30 percent funded now, with a goal of 80 percent. To take money out of the account would be a huge, huge mistake.” Committee member Sandra Flowers was also reticent and commented, “That sounds counterproductive to me.”

The only thing agreed to in principle was a suggestion by Ken Nomiyama, a member of Newport’s Finance Review Committee, who thought that a capital improvement line item could be reduced from $50,000 to $25,000 since the city assumed responsibility for most capital expenses during last year’s budget negotiations.

No formal action was taken at the meeting, and work will continue in the coming days to determine how to best address the financial challenges. The next workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, June 23.

There is also unfinished business from 2015, with an approximately $1 million deficit that needs to be resolved for the fiscal year ending June 30. That gap resulted largely from projected savings that were never realized, and was recently narrowed with the application of capital funds that were freed up after the former Triplett School was relinquished to the city. Although nothing has been finalized, that shortfall may be settled through a loan from city coffers that would be paid back in $200,000 annual installments.

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