North Smithfield Budget Committee's work is unsatisfactory

North Smithfield Budget Committee's work is unsatisfactory

It is time for the leadership in the Town of North Smithfield to conduct a zero-based review of the budget process, beginning with the design and function of the Budget Committee. In my capacity as Chairperson of the North Smithfield Special Education Local Advisory Committee for the last 14 years and my participation on various other educational committees, I have watched from the sidelines as various iterations of the Budget Committee, School Committee and two different Superintendents have done battle. It is a battle that serves no one, not our Town Council, not our School Committee, not the taxpayers and most important, not our students. The hostility directed at the School Department this year has been the most shameful of all. Even worse, it is based upon complete ignorance of the Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA), as well as R.I. general law and Federal laws governing education and educational budgeting. If the unprofessional and antagonistic approach utilized by the Budget Committee this year is to be held as the "gold standard," then taxpayers should be very concerned about the future of this town.

One of the biggest problems is the December deadline set by the Town Charter for submission of the budget. In order to meet the deadline, the School Department must begin setting the budget for the next school year by October of the previous school year. This is long before almost everything you would need to know about the budget can be reasonably established, such as costs for health insurance, fuel and busing, student census, student performance and in some years, the outcome of contract negotiations. UCOA is built upon a premise that development of school budgets will be a data-driven process that begins with a comprehensive needs assessment. Under the current timeline, this is impossible and forces constant revisions throughout the year. These revisions waste valuable administrative time that could be better spent concentrating on student performance.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Currently, the Budget Committee is selected by the Town Council, which nominates their friends for these positions. What are the qualifications necessary to evaluate a town budget? Apparently, that is not a consideration. Instead, I propose that a Selection Committee comprised of a variety of individuals be established. This might include the Town Administrator, a member of the Town Council, a member of the School Committee, a member of the business community, a town resident with a child in one of our schools and an elderly resident. Such a committee could set minimum criteria for serving on the Budget Committee and would review and approve applications for this role. Those on the Budget Committee would have to commit to meeting with the School Department and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to ensure that they have a solid grasp of the complex needs of a School Department budget, beginning with UCOA and the Basic Education Program, which guides all school activities.

Unfortunately, this is not the process that was utilized this year. Instead, the Budget Committee Report that was delivered to the Town Council is a waste of everyone's time. The School Department has spent countless hours in an effort to educate the Budget Committee and the public regarding the needs of our students. This information is readily available at the district website, I encourage all residents to review this information carefully. Our children deserve as much.

Michelle Taylor

North Smithfield