2017-01-19 / Around Town

Middletown School Enrollment Down

By Olga Enger

Although there are fewer students in Middletown Public Schools this year, officials are predicting a 2 percent tax hike in the next fiscal year, according to preliminary budget discussions.

Middletown’s enrollment is 2,184, approximately 90 students less than the same time last year.

“Ninety is pretty significant, said Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues at a pre-budget meeting with the School Committee held on Tuesday, Jan. 17. “I don’t think in all the years I’ve sat here, I’ve ever seen that high of a number. That’s three times higher than the highs and lows we typically see.”

Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger concluded the decline is likely a result of lower birth rates among military families, according to school-conducted surveys. However, the enrollment dip does not impact the bottom line, as it is spread across grades, she said.

Several councilors suggested the decline might not be an isolated plunge, but rather a general trend.

“The fact of the matter is that the birth rate is down,” said Councilor Barbara VonVillas. “I had four children, and the neighborhood was full of kids running around. You just don’t see that anymore.”

Nevertheless, local students are attending the public schools, said the superintendent.

“We don’t see data that supports [the idea that] students are going to private schools. We see the opposite, actually. More private school students are coming to Middletown,” said Kraeger.

Several councilors agreed that data should be collected to identify the reasons behind the enrollment numbers over time.

Despite the decline, the district expects to spend $68,000 more than last year, representing a .17 increase. Total expenditures are estimated to be $40 million for the next fiscal year, excluding a $10 million school repair bond.

On the revenue side, officials say they need to collect 2 percent more in taxes than last year to keep up with services.

“Relativity, the revenues are flat for the new year,” said Town Administrator Shawn Brown. “That estimate is based off a 2-percent increase in the tax rate, otherwise there would be a decrease in revenues.”

The schools hope to add two new positions next year, which may be absorbed into the existing 302 staff members, depending on retirements, said Kraeger.

Newly elected Councilor Dennis Turano advocated for more guidance councilors at the high school.

“I think with all the stuff that is going on across the country, if a child is behind at the beginning of the year, they will never catch up,” Turano said.

There are three high school guidance counselors supporting 700 students, Kraeger said, agreeing with Turano the ratio was low. “The needs of our students, anxiety, depression, is incredible,” said the superintendent.

“These kids face pressures that we couldn’t imagine facing. These are different times,” Rodrigues agreed.

Last year, the district added a librarian position.

“Honestly the need for the counselors far outweighs the need for a librarian. I’m sorry, but that’s how I look at it,” said Lombardi. “They are there for one of the most important decisions the student is going to make in their life.”

Under state law, the school appropriation from the town cannot increase more than 4 percent from the previous year. Last year, the district received $26,228,589 from local taxpayers, so school officials may request an additional $1,049,144 in the upcoming budget year.

A recurring challenge for the school budget is the cumulative loss of state aid. In 2010, legislators passed a new education-funding formula to distribute state funds across Rhode Island districts, depending on need. To date, the loss of revenue in Middletown is $1,312,147.

“The cumulative loss is breathtaking,” Kraeger said. “I’ve always said this is a revenue problem, but we also have an expense issue as well.”

The joint meeting fulfilled a state requirement (§ 16-2-21 pre-budget consultation) for the schools to meet with the council before they present their individual budgets. The town is required to present estimated revenues, including the change in the property tax base. The School Department must disclose anticipated total expenditures, projected enrollments, staffing requirements, charter school enrollment, and changes in school programs or operations.

Overall, the meeting was cordial, after last year’s heated budget workshops between school and town officials.

“Tonight was a good exchange. I think we have some valid questions that were put on the floor,” said Council President Robert Sylvia.

Councilors also identified town goals for the upcoming fiscal year, including development of the West Main Road corridor and the Burma Road waterfront area, cost efficiencies, citizen engagement, a strategic plan, economic partnerships, and greater community involvement.

Kraeger read a high-level mission statement of school priorities, which include collaboration, professional growth and accountability. Specifically, the schools identified a stronger digital learning environment, STEM programming, reading and writing instruction, and facility upgrades as goals.

The building improvements will be completed under a $10 million repair bond approved by voters in the November election.

“Thanks to the taxpayers, that’s going to be a great opportunity to improve our facilities,” said Kraeger.

The School Committee will present its budget to the Town Council on April 10. The first public hearing on the consolidated budget is scheduled for May 17.

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