Council hinges school funding on internal audit

Council hinges school funding on internal audit

Third medical response team approved during council hearing

SMITHFIELD - At a sometimes-emotional public hearing that spanned nearly four hours Tuesday night, the Town Council agreed to recommend a $450,000 budget increase for schools next year, but in a surprise move said it would escrow the money until an outside performance audit determines whether the School Department is making the best use of the funding taxpayers provide it.

Town Manager Dennis Finlay had recommended a school budget increase of $300,000, and the council added another $150,000 after hearing passionate requests for more educational support.

But in doing so, the council said it will ask the June 13 Financial Town meeting to approve the increase as an escrowed fund.

That means the council would control whether the school board ultimately gets any of money, depending on what the audit reveals. A performance audit goes beyond number-crunching and examines policy management, decision-making and whether resources are deployed efficiently and achieve desired results.

The audit is expected to take about three months. The council approved it several weeks ago at the suggestion of businessman Alfred Costantino, who for the past two years has dogged the school board over alleged poor management and wasteful spending.

Schools had originally asked for a hike of $1.1 million in their current local appropriation of $27.26 million.

With Finlay recommending less than a third of the requested increase, the school board and Supt. Robert O'Brien asked the council Tuesday to double the manager's $300,000 proposal. They argued that they have been level-funded for several years and needed the money to recall all or most of 18 teachers being laid off next year and to bolster course offerings to students.

Even with the requested increase, they said, they must use a sizable chunk of accumulated surplus to finance operations for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

In another major decision at the hearing, the council approved a request from Fire Chief Robert Seltzer to add two new emergency medical technicians to his department so it can create a third medical response team.

Seltzer said heavy demands on his department have increasingly caused it to rely on other municipalities for medical runs, significantly increasing response times and putting town residents in danger when loss of a few minutes can cost lives.

According to Seltzer the new hires would have no effect on the tax rate because the bulk of their salaries would come from income the department receives from medical insurance companies covering patient transportation.

The town has two available medic trucks, one currently used as backup, and a third is on order.

The council also accepted Town Manager Finlay's endorsement of an additional police detective, which Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur Jr. said is needed because of a thriving illicit drug trade in town.

Officials from the Greenville and East Smithfield libraries, saying their facilities are experiencing a financial squeeze, each sought some $24,000 more than Finlay recommended, and the council gave them a partial loaf, adding $15,000 to each account.

The council passed over a request by Todd Manni, part-time director of the town's Emergency Management Agency, for creation of a $52,000-a-year, full-time management position there.

The budget recommendation going to the Financial Town Meeting, accounting for all department expenditures and outside aid receipts, now stands at $63.25 million, up about $1.2 million from the current appropriation.

It will require a property tax increase of 1.92 percent to $17.52 a thousand.

The council announced its decisions swiftly and with no discussion at the hearing's end, after holding an inaudible, half-hour huddle on the stage of the high school auditorium.

The hearing attracted about 100 people and provoked sharply divided opinions, especially on the school issue.

Supt. O'Brien detailed a litany of school needs including boosting the number of advanced placement courses at the high school, and concerns over staffing for technology, business, music, foreign language, math, and family and consumer science.

While student performance is high in many areas, he said, the system has lost 23 teachers to budget constraints in recent years, so "There was a cost."

Kelly Chartier, the high school's lone music teacher, said she has been turning students away for years and that there is a serious need for the additional two-fifths-time teacher the committee wants to hire. The board also cited a need for an additional full-time technology teacher at the high school.

Sandi Brenner, who has two children in the system, urged the council to support the doubling of Finlay's recommended increase, noting that school budgets have been flat "year after year" and that while local student performance is high, I'm looking for excellence."

But Miroslaw Kula, vice chairman of the municipal Financial Advisory Commission, said he was taking the side of taxpayers in arguing that schools have proven they can do a good job with their allotted budgets and "We have only so much money to spend each year."

That prompted committee member Brenden Oates, himself a product of the local school system, to declare, "You may be looking for a discount School Department, but you're going to get discount results."

Costantino said there is waste in the school budget and that the committee should never lay teachers off, but should start its budgeting process by deciding how many teachers it needs and cutting elsewhere to ensure an adequate staff.