2015-11-25 / Front Page

School Budget Queried

By Barry Bridges

The answer to whether the Newport School Department is already showing a budget deficit for the 2016 fiscal year may depend on the person is asked.

In what has become a seemingly year-round exercise, the health of the current school budget has been recently brought up at City Council and School Committee meetings, with some city leaders homing in on a $512,000 staffing line overage that resulted from the need for additional classrooms to accommodate the number of students who matriculated in September.

At the council’s Nov. 18 session, an agenda item to consider funding the schools’ $708,000 deficit for 2015 segued into a conversation on fiscal 2016.

Councilor Naomi Neville broached the subject, “At our last [City Council/ School Committee Liaison Subcommittee] meeting, it was unclear what our new deficit projections are going to be. While we have a deficit that we will most likely be clearing up from this previous year, we want to make sure that moving forward, we don’t end up in this same situation.”

“We currently do not have a shortfall or a deficit,” responded Superintendent Colleen Jermain from the floor. She confirmed that additional hires created the overage in the staffing line item. “As with any budget, we make reductions in other lines to keep things balanced.”

When Neville worried that the situation could worsen as the year proceeds, Jermain said, “As we move through the school year, we’ll try, as best as possible, to make up the $512,000, just as we did last year when we had a [deficit] projection and we cut that projection in half by freezing our budget, delaying hires, and just really staying on top of the numbers.”

Notwithstanding those efforts, last year ended with a $708,000 deficit. “We had a lot of different challenges last year,” Jermain continued. “Our contracts didn’t get settled as soon as possible, we had some additional busing we had to take care of, we had some out-of-district placements for our students, and we had to hire a few additional paras.” She agreed that it “is a lot of money,” but also said that “out of a $36 million annual budget, we were two percent over…. [That means] if our budget were one dollar, we spent two cents more.”

Looking ahead, Jermain acknowledged that unknowns can always impact the best-laid plans. “You can literally have a child move into your district and the next day it’s going to cost $150,000 more…. We have no control over that.”

Councilor Lynn Ceglie was less concerned about the amount of this year’s overage than she was in ensuring that the city is notified of potential problems as they arise. “There are rumors flying that there’s a deficit…. But for me, it’s all about whether the city actually knows about it.”

While reiterating that the School Department is always open to suggestions on how to best share information with councilors, Jermain emphasized, “I just want to be really, really clear. We do not have a deficit. I think that’s important for me to say, because if we had a deficit I’d have to report immediately to the Auditor General and to the city’s finance director…. A deficit means that you have overspent the amount of money you have been allocated, and we have not done that. Nor do we have a projection that we are going to do that.”

Councilor Justin McLaughlin wondered how $512,000 in expenses could be erased from other line items. “It makes me wonder if we have a reliable budget,” he said. “One of my concerns going forward is whether we clearly understand the cost of running the schools…. If you really didn’t need that money, I have to ask, why was it in there?”

That question was previously raised by School Committee member David Carlin at a meeting on Nov. 10, when he asked, “As I’m looking at projected cuts, why was the money included in the 2015-16 budget if we didn’t need it?”

“Like any budget that’s created, when you put a dollar at the end of a line, you know it will never be exactly that,” Jermain offered at the time. “As has often been said, a budget is a living document. It will change. And right now we feel like we can cut certain lines to keep it balanced.”

School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines agreed that the $512,000 staffing overage is a manageable amount to make up through reductions in other areas, and told Newport This Week that state law allows schools to “juggle the lines” as necessary. “Early in the year, things are liquid,” she said. Gaines is also hoping for good news on the revenue side for 2016, anticipating possible increases in grant monies and federal aid.

Meanwhile, the School Committee will begin work in December on the fiscal 2017 budget.

As for resolving the 2015 deficit, the council deferred action on the issue to its meeting next month, but did not comment on the reason for the continuance. Leonard, who lamented recently-released “dismal” student test scores even with increased school appropriations, said, “I’ll tell you this. The taxpayers want to see performance and the best use of school funds, and everybody wants the kids to flourish. The question is how to best make that happen.”

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