2015-12-17 / Front Page

School Deficit Settled

Officials Addressing Past, Present and Future Budgets
By Barry Bridges

Newport City Councilors voted unanimously on Wednesday, Dec. 9, to appropriate $708,000 to eradicate a lingering school deficit from 2014-15. The vote was 6-0, with Councilor Kathryn Leonard not in attendance.

Councilors balanced out the books for the schools’ 2015 fiscal year by transferring monies from Newport’s general fund balance. The city had originally agreed to issue a loan to the schools to cover the $708,000 shortfall, which would have been repaid over five years. But councilors acknowledged that the School Department was able to reduce a once-estimat- ed deficit of around $1.5 million through various measures, including spending freezes and teacher layoffs, and voted to clear the debt outright.

“The city has an ending surplus of $2.2 million partly as a result of the freeze; it is this surplus that will be used to fund the [2015 deficit],” interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson wrote in a memo to councilors that outlined the plan also supporting Finance Director Laura Sitrin.

The action came several months after the end of the fiscal year on June 30, which allowed time for final figures to be audited. A general fund balance of $13.5 million remains, which is 14.8 percent of Newport’s fiscal 2015 revenues.

In embracing the administration’s recommendation, councilors reiterated their hopes that cost efficiencies can be gained by a continued emphasis on shared services, and also pointed to the importance of a robust educational base to support the future workforce envisioned for the North End Innovation Hub.

“I feel that the City Council and the School Committee need to have some important discussions about shared services in various areas, and I think that’s something to discuss as time goes on,” said Second Ward Councilor Lynn Ceglie.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin commented, “I think [that funding the 2015 deficit] is the right thing to do…. I would just point out that we’re looking to bring in new jobs and new economic opportunity to the community, and we need to have a good educational system to attract those businesses and new residents.”

“In the last few years we have really stepped up to the plate when it comes to the School Committee and the education of our kids,” said Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. “We’re going to be looking, too, for improvement in the standing of our students, because it’s going to be important to their future and the future of Newport.”

In an effort to prevent future shortfalls by staying on top of budgetary issues as they arise, the school and city administrations also continue to closely monitor the current 2015-16 school budget, which reflects a $512,000 overage in staffing costs incurred because of additional classrooms that were opened to accommodate the number of students who enrolled in September.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain has said that the variation is being managed by examining other expense categories such as supplies, technical services, and capital outlays. “As with any budget, we make reductions in other lines to keep things balanced,” she explained to councilors in November.

The council’s decision to clear up the 2015 deficit outright will aid that process, as the schools will not be required to reimburse the city for making up the difference. In fiscal 2016, that translates to a $200,000 savings.

At a meeting of the City Council/ School Liaison Subcommittee on Tuesday, Dec. 15, Jermain said, “We continue to work on [2016], but we are nowhere near a deficit position….

Only if we became stuck with no other possible moves in the budget would we have a deficit.”

School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines added, “There are many variables between now and June 30 with both expenses and income. There is room right now to juggle.”

Also on Tuesday, school administrators and committee members convened with personnel from Rogers, Thompson, and Pell to begin looking ahead to the 2016-17 school year and the possible financial implications from increasing enrollments and the need for additional teachers and space.

Pell Elementary expects an increase from 938 students to 979 in the next academic year, equating to one additional classroom teacher. School leaders also made the case for bringing on additional teachers in reading and math/ STEM. The increasing projections are feeding a continuing concern about classroom capacity at Pell.

Thompson foresees a slight increase in the number of students from 618 to 624 in 2016, but Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Booth said that the middle school requires two additional math/ STEM teachers, especially in light of lackluster student test scores.

Jeffrey Goss, principal at Rogers High, described planned curriculum expansions at NACTC and the Accelerated Learning Program, and reported that 2016 would not bring a significant increase in total student numbers. But to fulfill their academic requirements, he is proposing additional teachers in English, math, and French/Spanish.

Hard costs have not been attributed to the future identified needs, and it remains to be seen how the information presented at the workshop will play out in next spring’s 2016-17 school budget submission for the City Council’s consideration.

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