2016-05-26 / Front Page

Jermain Makes Case for Budget

By Barry Bridges

Citing the district’s special education tuitions, the need for more teachers and paraprofessionals to accommodate growing enrollments, and contractually-obligated staff raises, Newport Schools Superintendent Colleen Jermain has presented city officials with her formal request for a four percent increase in local appropriations for the 2016-2017 school year.

“I understand that these have been challenging times and I do know that there are other departments within our city that need support,” she said at a workshop with councilors on Wednesday, May 18. “But we’re working for one of the most important features a city can have: a high-performing school system that serves its citizens and students well. For a strong community you need a strong school system.”

With a four percent increase, the maximum allowed under Rhode Island law, the city’s school funding would increase by $972,490 to just under $25.3 million. Combined with other revenue sources, largely state and federal aid, the district’s total budget would be $38.6 million for the year.

After posting deficits in previous years, the schools are heading into this budget season in a stronger position, with an anticipated 2016 surplus of about $375,000. Some of that amount will likely be available to carry over.

“If we continue to maintain the course and follow the projections we have for the end of the year, we’re hoping we can take $250,000 [of the fund balance] and apply it to our revenue side in 2017,” said the superintendent.

The city has already indicated a willingness to increase its educational appropriation by two and one-half percent next year.

Special needs students were a focus of the discussion, as their educational expenses can be unpredictable. For example, Jermain reported that in 2015-16, the district had 14 unexpected DCYF students incurring out-of-district placement costs.

School Committee member Rebecca Bolan offered, “That represents over $700,000, and doesn’t even include the busing [to and from the students’ day programs]. And that’s just a rough estimate. When that hits your budget unexpectedly, you can imagine how difficult it is to absorb.”

Speaking to the volatility of that expense line, Councilor Justin McLaughlin asked, “What if five children associated with Navy families move into Newport this summer with extraordinary special needs? That could blow your [currently projected] number right out of the water.”

“That’s correct,” answered Jermain, but she added that the numbers don’t necessarily affect the budget equally. “Two students could cost more than 50. It just depends on what their identified needs are.”

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Councilors John Florez and Naomi Neville were not in attendance at the budget meeting, and McLaughlin took the lead on the city side in championing the schools’ request.

“It’s easy to be skeptical and cynical about [any request for more funds], but if we don’t have a good educational system, people are not going to want to live here. It’s our responsibility to work toward that end,” he said.

But Councilor Kathryn Leonard balked. She cited figures that the council had bestowed more than $4 million in increased funding since Fiscal 2014.

“This cannot really continue,” she said. “Yes, we want good schools, and yes, we want students to excel, but there’s also a limit to how much people can pay in taxes, and a lot of people are stressed. There are times when we have to live within the budget and do what we can.”

Second Ward Councilor Lynn Ceglie asked Newport Finance Director Laura Sitrin about the impact of the schools’ four percent request versus the previously-assumed two and one-half percent. Sitrin replied that the property tax rate would increase by eight cents per thousand dollars of evaluation over earlier estimates.

Reviewing the highlights of what she considers as some of the district’s successes over the past few years, including increased graduation rates and an expanded focus on college and career readiness, Jermain wants to maintain momentum.

“I understand that asking for four percent is challenging for the city and its taxpayers, but we have to make a decision: Do we want a strong educational system and do we want to build a strong city so that people want to stay here? If that’s the case we need to all get together, support the schools, support the future, and support families.”

Although the School Committee members in attendance generally presented a united front on the budget figures, committee member

David Carlin briefly reiterated his concerns about the process.

“I am a very strong supporter of schools and we should provide for their needs and reward their successes,” he said in a telephone conversation with Newport This Week. “But the budget process itself was not transparent. I received the documents about 48 hours prior to our committee meeting [to approve the figures to be presented to council] and didn’t have the opportunity to review it…. That is almost unheard of for governing bodies.

“My input was never solicited. I am not a rubber stamp,” Carlin continued. “The voters put me in office to do the job of making serious decisions on behalf of the public.” He also questioned why the entire 2016 estimated surplus of $375,000 isn’t being applied to 2017.

Jermain countered that budget planning has been ongoing through the Finance Subcommittee since December.

“Their meetings were always posted and were open to committee members and the public,” she told Newport This Week. She added that with six weeks remaining in the academic calendar, “anything can happen” with the projected surplus, but was comfortable at this point in recommending to the committee and council that $250,000 be carried over.

Attention now turns to city councilors, who will examine the numbers for all municipal departments, hold public hearings, and finalize an operating budget by July 1.

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