2017-06-01 / Front Page

‘Painful’ Budget Decisions Ahead

By Olga Enger

In the midst of what has been described as the “most difficult budget cycle in 20 years,” Newport school officials presented more problematic news to the City Council.

Newport Superintendent Colleen Jermain explained to councilors that the district would be unable to maintain the same level of educational standards, even if the city raised taxes the maximum 4 percent allowed under state law, during a May 30 budget workshop held at Newport City Hall.

To maintain the same level of education, the district will require $40.4 million, which is about $1.8 million more than the current $38.6 million budget, said Jermain. That is to cover the essential “must do” list, and does not include strategic plan goals such as technology investment.

“That’s just keep the staffing we have now. Not adding another pencil, not adding more paper,” said Jermain. To work towards the goals outlined in the strategic plan, the department would require $44.28 million, or $5.67 million more than the current budget, said Jermain.

However, even if the city allocated the $1 million increase allowed under state law, the schools would still fall $357,000 short from their essential “must do” list, said Jermain.

Despite that, the gap will likely be much greater.

Citing the rising cost of living, City Council rejected the proposed fiscal 2018 budget that included a 3.11 tax levy increase at the first reading held May 10. That budget only included a $379,271, or 1.5 percent, increase for the schools.

City Manager Joseph Nicholson has told councilors there is not a lot of wiggle room in the proposed budget, as most of the expenses are non-discretionary, such as contractual obligations and health insurance rate increases.

Mayor Harry Winthrop said they will review the numbers, but he warned that there would be sacrifices on both the municipal and school side.

“There is going to be pain,” said Winthrop “…It is going to be painful to get where we have to get.”

The school department has already prepared for cutbacks.

The School Committee voted on May 23 to notify nine teachers that their contracts will not be renewed for the next school year. The teachers could be brought back if the budget is adopted, but under state law, employees must be notified by June 1.

Councilor Kathryn Leonard said she was concerned about affordability for residents.

"I hear it all the time, How long can I afford to live in Newport? …I really think there needs to be a balance when it comes to the budget,” said Leonard.

Jermain said she has worked closely with the city finance director and city manager to work on the school budget, which should be a priority for taxpayers and council. “If you want a strong, vibrant city you need a strong, vibrant school system,” said the superintendent.

At a May budget workshop, Winthrop said that as Middletown's schools are facing similar challenges, it was time to reopen discussions about a regional high school. On the 2014 ballot in both Newport and Middletown, a non-binding question to residents asked if they supported the concept of a unified high school. Although Newport voters supported the idea, it was overwhelmingly rejected by Middletown residents.

Last week, Middletown Town Council voted to level-fund the school budget, despite their request for a 2.2 percent, or $1.05 million increase over last year. The Middletown school budget is $43 million.

Council is expected to vote on the final budget at their regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, June 24. The fiscal year begins July 1.

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