2018-03-22 / Around Town

School Committee Takes on Budget, Firearms

By Christopher Allen

During the last scheduled Middletown School Committee Budget Workshop, which preceded the regular meeting on Thursday March 15, Middletown School Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger and the five-member school committee hashed out budgetary priorities for the fiscal 2019 year. The discussion was short on specific numbers, due to anticipated last- -minute changes and the expectation of continued reductions in state and federal aid.

Kraeger said that she will be presenting a budget proposal at the next scheduled meeting on Friday, March 23 and opened the workshop by thanking the committee for their willingness to request the maximum allowable 4 percent increase in funding.

Having been level-funded the previous year, Kraeger outlined the obstacles faced in the current year, describing to school officials and the dozens of observers in the audience how the school district managed.

“I know we will be asked how we survived with a $1 million dollar cut,” she said.

She then identified multiple ways the leadership attempted to cover the loss, including the delaying or shifting of openings such as those for support staff, deans, and administrative data positions. Additionally, the district applied the fund balance to the Special Education Tuition Transition Plan. Students with special needs are provided transition services and post-secondary education until age 21.

“We identified students who would soon be aging out over the next three years...we were very thoughtful about applying that fund balance to come up with a plan to help with those transitions,” Kraeger said.

The district also shifted certain positions in the budget from the general fund to the Title 1 Grants category, putting the continuation of those jobs at the mercy of federal grants. Additionally, teachers’ assistants, college and career readiness and instructional positions were not filled.

The Superintendent reiterated the district’s dedication to teacher hiring at a baseline level of master’s degree with 6 years’ experience. “It has been Middletown’s position that we hire the best qualified for our students,” she said.

A major issue in upcoming budget creation is the combination of rising obligation costs and forecasted cuts in federal and state aid. “You’ve heard me say this is a revenue problem,” Kraeger said. “Well, this is a revenue problem.”

Currently, school officials forecast the reduction in combined state aid from the general funding formula and group home assistance at $240,105.

Additional budget forecasting shows district staff and retiree benefits are set to rise. About a quarter of teachers (24 percent) are “moving up a step,” meaning a salary increase of 2 percent, according to the current teacher contract set to expire this year. The projected increase in staff health benefits is 4.4 percent.

Committee Vice-chair Theresa Spengler, anticipating the coming budget struggle with Town Council, spoke in support of spending increases that she deems necessary to providing quality education to students within the district. “Our children have a right to a full education, to have all of the tools they need. It is our responsibility as a community,” she said.

“It is critical that our citizens, parents and families really work with town officials…many [town officials] are products of Middletown schools.”

The regular meeting, which followed the budget workshop, showed that recent controversy over how schools deal with overall safety regarding firearms still inspires considerable disagreement. In a vote that included the evening’s only member “No,” the school committee voted 4-1 to approve Gun-Free Schools Resolution 2018, which supports any RI General Assembly legislative effort to ban all firearms on school properties, excluding those carried by law enforcement.

Committee member William O’Connell objected to the resolution, specifically the wording “Gun Free Schools,” which he thought may encourage violent aggression. A brief back-and-forth ensued over the nature of the resolution.

“I think you are just putting a flag up when you advertise that this is a gun-free zone,” O’Connell said. “You are putting a target on the school.”

Committee Chair Kellie Simeone pushed back, pointing out that the resolution, far from advertising vulnerability, simply showed support for any state law that would prevent firearms in school buildings or during any school event. “We are not putting up a sign that says it’s a gun-free zone,” she said. “If parents [or others] are coming to a school play or a conference, we don’t want firearms.”

The resolution is supported by The Rhode Island Association of School Principals Executive Board and The Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association. According to the resolution, 40 states do not permit firearms on school grounds, including those held by people with concealed carry permits.

The next school committee meeting will take place on Friday, March 23 at 3 p.m. This meeting will culminate with the sending of a budget request to town council. I

In Other Matters

. The committee unanimously approved a Contract Continuation Resolution which states they request the General Assembly “oppose any and all legislative proposals that would mandate expired teacher contracts must continue at the existing terms and conditions.”

. The committee unanimously approved a Binding Arbitration Resolution that states opposition “to any and all binding arbitration legislation currently being considered for teacher and other school employee contracts.”

. The committee unanimously approved a School Construction Bond Referendum Resolution in support of proposed RI General Assembly Article 5 of H-2018 7200 that if passed would put a bond before Rhode Island voters to approve $250 million for new school construction and renovation.

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