2018-09-06 / Around Town

Steering Committee Punts on Possible Merge

By Christopher Allen

The Steering Committee, a joint body formed back in June by Middletown officials made up of all current members of both the Middletown School Committee and Town Council, met on September 4 and voted overwhelmingly against taking a deeper dive into the numbers to determine whether any official consolidation of town and school administrative offices and departments is financially viable.

Only three of the 12 members of the committee voted in favor of moving forward, in an outcome that essentially tables the discussion indefinitely.

Council member Dennis Turano supported the creation of a subcommittee to further crunch the numbers and gather data, and to continue the matter to a later date.

“Let’s maybe take it down a notch and get into the details,” he said. “There’s positives on both sides.”

The reluctance of a majority of Steering Committee members to officially consolidate services within the town became clear early on in the discussion, with both school officials and council members outlining multiple reasons not to move forward with the measure.

“If we are just doing it to save money without ensuring that we are providing either better service or at least the same level of quality of service, then it is not worth doing, in my opinion,” said School Committee Chair Kellie Simeone.

However, the topic of further and improved cooperation between the town public works department and maintenance team and the school department, specifically the facilities and maintenance department, was discussed at length and determined to be a less risky alternative to across-the-board consolidation.

But this sentiment amounted to keeping things the way they are logistically, while working to improve interdepartmental communication.

“Frankly, I haven’t heard anything that is in any way compelling,” said Town Council President Robert Sylvia. “Unless this body can show me the savings... leave well enough alone.”

Council member Henry Lombardi echoed Sylvia’s comments, arguing that Middletown would be better served by not tinkering too much with the status quo, though he said he was open to discussing the consolidation of public buildings in the future so that town and school officials would have greater face-to-face daily contact.

“Does it really increase efficiency? Maybe not...I haven’t heard anybody tell me it saves money,” he said.

According to school officials, other cities and towns in Rhode Island who have combined school with other municipal services have not realized the financial gains they were hoping for. Indeed, some have even placed themselves into worse financial positions as a result of the merge, they said.

Examples given by Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger included the districts of East Providence, East Greenwich, Westerly and North Providence.

Newport, said Town Administrator Shawn Brown, combined city and school finance departments, and he cited them as a cautionary tale. "The [Newport] school department overspent their budget by half a million dollars."

Brown added that while he could not directly attribute the shortfall in Newport to a unified finance department, having the Middletown school administration and school committee handle budget reporting in-house has helped them balance their budgets.

“When a situation like that comes up, where does the responsibility fall?” he said.

However, in certain instances, cooperation between public works and the school facilities team has been a success story. For example, recently the town funded and completed additions to the football field at Gaudet School, creating a handicap-accessible ramp around the concession stand leading to the parking lot. In a reverse example, the school facilities department recently assisted the town with HVAC work.

Brown said this type of cooperation is routine and doesn’t always require top-down approval. And unless the project in question is of some major significance, there are no reimbursements involved. “It’s on a case by case basis,” he said.

Council member Theresa Santos pointed out that the collective services that all municipal employees and departments perform in Middletown are financed predominantly from a single source, namely, the tax dollars of residents and businesses.

“The money is coming out of one pot,” Santos said. “Leave it alone.”

The school district receives significant state and federal dollars annually, through a state formula and other grants, though these amounts have been decreasing. And although the town’s infrastructure enjoys certain state and federal grants as well, having a unified department navigate the separate funding sources could prove to be cumbersome, according to school officials.

“We get funding from the state for [our] educational buildings,” said School Committee member William O’Connell. “You’ve got a problem when you start combining things.”

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