2015-07-02 / Front Page

School Budget Requires Layoffs

As Many as 19 Teachers May Lose Jobs
By Barry Bridges

One day before the new fiscal year began on July 1, the Newport School Committee passed a balanced budget plan that closed projected deficits largely through teacher layoffs.

“The work to reconcile this budget has been the most inclusive and transparent with which I have ever been involved,” said Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines as she opened the meeting on Monday, June 29. “Staff worked long days and many hours to keep true to our goals, preserving successful programs and increasing efforts that will keep students engaged, increase our graduation rate, and reduce the number of students who would otherwise drop out of school, in keeping with our strategic plan.”

“We accepted the realization that the budget is not static, but is subject to adjustment from time to time,” Gaines continued. “Our expenditures are based on the needs of our kids. Those needs will vary and are therefore not 100 percent predictable. Today, as required by Rhode Island law, we have a balanced budget.”

Even with a $935,086 increase that brought the city’s appropriation to $24.3 million, the schools still needed to find $1.3 million in savings to not exceed total revenues of $36.8 million. Less pay for new hires and layoffs will make up the biggest portion of cuts. An additional $500,000 was shaved from many expense line items. For example, overtime costs projections were lowered by $12,000, while $40,000 was removed from the supplies estimate.

In anticipation of the inevitable, the committee gave layoff notices in May to 29 teachers. As part of Monday’s meeting, 10 were recalled, leaving 19 uncertain of their future with the system. Although budget assumptions dictate that at least nine of the 19 positions will be eliminated, the final number to ultimately return to the classroom will not be known until later in the summer when there is a better idea of enrollment figures.

The need for layoffs was not taken lightly, with school leaders expressing their dismay at the situation. Committee member David Carlin was adamantly against the move.

“We are essentially telling veterans of the district that we’re not recalling them tonight,” he said. “I’ve been around the block once or twice but I’ve never seen teachers with nine or 10 years of experience laid off. They have dedicated their lives to our schools. It’s a blow to morale, and I want to amend the recall list.”

Carlin has been a repeated critic of the 2015 budget that resulted in the deficit. It was adopted prior to his election in November. “We all know why we’re here,” he continued. “We are in a situation where our budget for 2015 was screwed up so badly that we now have to go back and remove teachers from the payroll who have significant experience. This is a process that could have and should have been avoided.”

He made several motions to bring back everyone from the layoff list.

This drew the ire of other board members. Gaines said, “The number of people who are recalled reflects our anticipated needs. These were not done arbitrarily. There was great thought and great care given to this.” She added that decisions are based not only on need, but also on certification and seniority. Superintendent Colleen Jermain described the difficult balance in deciding which positions would be reinstated and said that the 10 coming back would keep educational plans intact for the coming year.

Committee member Kathleen Silvia was surprised at Carlin’s motions since money is not available to accommodate his wishes. “You just made a comment about how last year we went into a hole,” she said. “How would bringing back all the teachers not send us into a hole? I don’t understand your reasoning to make motions to add these expenditures when the money is not there.”

Carlin reiterated a point he has made previously and pointed to a $5 million retirement trust fund with a seven percent return each year. Others balked at the suggestion of borrowing funds from the account.

“I don’t appreciate being put in the position of having to vote ‘no’ to bringing back teachers,” said committee member Sandra Flowers, “and the recommendation of going into the retirees' health insurance account just leaves us more in a hole. I want recommendations to be carefully thought out. In the past, people with over 20 years of experience have been in this position. It is not unique to this year.”

While Carlin’s motions failed on 6-1 votes, the work to bring back additional teachers will continue throughout the summer. “I do take heart that the superintendent is continually looking at the layoff list to bring people back quickly and expeditiously,” said Gaines.

A lot will depend on enrollment numbers that materialize at Pell Elementary and Thompson Middle schools. “We will bring them back as early as possible,” said Jermain. “Our budget can change from day to day based on children moving in and out of the district. We will have to wait until September to see what the first day of school brings.”

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