2016-03-17 / Around Town

Schools Seek Four Percent Budget Hike

$10 Million Repair Bond Also on Table
By James Merolla

Monday, March 21. Tuesday, March 22. Mark the dates.

Those are the two sessions where town officials will finalize requests for millions in proposed spending that may ultimately result in either higher town taxes or reduced educational services and delays in overdue school repairs.

Both requests are being generated by the Middletown School Committee.

On Thursday, March 10, the committee said in a budget workshop that they will almost certainly seek a four percent increase in local funding next year, the maximum allowed under Rhode Island law.

Although the schools do not have to submit their 2017 budget until April 1, education officials were clear at the workshop that – given the shortage of key educational personnel in the district – they will ask for the maximum increase. The committee offered a $39.7 million total budget picture for the first time and cited the need for two new librarians and two intervention specialists who would assist students in math, reading and writing.

Earlier at the same meeting, school leaders approved a resolution seeking a $10 million bond issue to be placed on November’s ballot for future school repairs. The schools also hope to procure a possible 39 percent in reimbursement funds for various repair projects over the next few years.

The Town Council must approve or reject the bond request at their next scheduled meeting on Monday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. The committee is expected to vote on its final proposed budget during its March 22 session at 5:30 p.m. at the Oliphant building.

“These are not wants. These are needs,” School Committee member Liana Ferreira-Fenton said at the workshop. “We’ve tried [not having] librarians. It doesn’t work.”

The budget proposal may ignite the embers of a firefight that begin last year between the council and the committee, when both boards argued publicly about $144,000 that the schools wanted restored in their 2016 budget. The council rejected the request.

Later in the spring, both boards were forced to seek legal representation (at significant town cost) over the committee’s purchase of more than $1 million in laptop computers and related devices for students. The schools were exonerated from any wrongdoing, but were reproached for an omission in procedures. The conflict frosted both sides.

Teachers also picketed Town Hall last autumn over the council’s failure to approve new contracts for teachers and aides, which expired on Aug. 31.

Earlier this year, the council went on record that – heading into the 2017 fiscal year – they will do everything they can to keep the municipal budget to a two percent ceiling in every department, including the schools.

At the March 10 workshop – citing a $750,000 loss in state aid over the past several years with more state cuts to come – the committee said they really were trying to work within the four percent framework. “That [loss in state funding] will be $1 million over 10 years,” said Committee Chair Theresa Spengler. “That makes a big difference in how we are going to support our programs.”

School business manager Raquel Pellerin said that if everything is left “as is” without the request for additional personnel, the increase would only be 2.6 percent. But Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger said that, had the schools asked for “everything we need,” the increase would be closer to seven percent.

Earlier in the workshop, resident Ron Heroux, a volunteer librarian, was given nearly 40 minutes to make a plea to restore school librarians. If the town didn’t comply with this request, Heroux said he would make sure that the council heard his message “loud and clear.”

In supporting the $10 million bond, the committee said that not only would such an action ensure that key repairs are done down the road, but it would not add to the town’s tax rate under the current funding structure. Officials explained that a former bond would be paid off and that, when the dust settled, the town would expend about $6 million, with a possible $4 million return from the state.

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