Hamilton gives School Department 30 days to provide legal budget

Hamilton gives School Department 30 days to provide legal budget

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton told the School Committee Monday night she's giving them 30 days to rework their budget into one that complies with the 4 percent state cap on increases.

And she questioned why the board submitted a document that calls for an illegal, 15 percent increase in the first place.

The administrator was reacting to the "draft" submitted by the department in December that showed expenditures totaling more than $27 million, a 15 percent increase from the current fiscal year. The School Department first presented the budget to the public in November, saying the document - which included the addition of new programs and services, plus an increase of $550,412 in salaries and $934,705 in benefits - was just a "starting point." But as the charter-mandated budget deadline approached, none of the proposed spending was removed.

"The North Smithfield School Committee, as we all do, has to comply with state law," said Hamilton.

The budget, Hamilton said, showed revenues of $24,260,790 and expenditures of $27,073,573, a figure that significantly exceeds the state-mandated 4 percent cap on increases, and must be reduced by $2,812,780.

"State law and town charter reference the need for budgets to be balanced with expenditures equal to requested revenue," she said, telling committee members they had 30 days to submit a new document,

It is the second consecutive year that the department submitted a budget request that town officials said does not comply with the law. During last year's budget cycle, Budget Committee chairman Michael Clifford said it took months for him to receive a document that met the requirements.

Supt. Stephen Lindberg, who attended the joint meeting with the Town Council along with three members of the Committee - William Connell, Christine Bonas and Donna J. Narodowy - referred the administrator to a letter sent by School Department attorney Benjamin Scungio.

"Our attorney felt differently: that we did submit to meet the requirement. We just didn't recognize that it would have to be reduced by that amount," said Lindberg in reference to the $2.8 million. "We wanted to have a discussion on the needs of the School Department."

Bonas requested that Hamilton put her demand in writing.

The letter from Scungio, written Dec. 20, states that the School Department's budget submission represents the committee's "best attempt to properly frame a budget within the time requirements for submission embedded in the town's charter."

Line items, including special education needs, out of district placements, and transportation costs, it said, were not yet known and were difficult to forecast.

"Given the strictures of the charter, the committee is only able to present a needs based budget," Scungio wrote. "We will transmit additional data to the town as it becomes available."

He went on, "This document should be extremely useful in framing a discussion as to the actual needs of the district rather than the marginal budget analysis which seems to have taken place last year. It is the School Committee's earnest hope that over the course of the next several months there will be meaningful discussions that will focus on educational needs of the students and ultimately the kind of education that the community desires."

Hamilton seemed exasperated.

"I know a lot of school districts struggle with that," she said. "We know it's hard. But we have a law that we have to adhere to."

Town Council President John Flaherty said that it was neither the administrator's or the Budget Committee's job to figure out what could be cut from the school budget.

"We'll comply," Lindberg responded. "We just wanted the rejection in writing for specific reasons."

Lindberg was not available on Tuesday to comment on if the department was considering utilizing the Carulo Act, a state law that allows school committees to sue their city or town for more funding.

Hamilton asked why the committee didn't just submit an appropriate budget to start with.

"We're all stuck with that 4 percent. We have to live within that 4 percent," she said. "Everyone in town could say they have a wish list of things that they would like to have."

Lindberg replied "I think it's pretty clear on the response that was sent with the budget. I think the fact of the matter about adequate funding the last five or six years: it's a chasm. It's a world apart. What the School Committee tried to do and what the attorney tried to explain to you is that this is a really serious matter. Four percent will not cut it."

Clifford also expressed frustration.

"We're playing games again this year," he said. "There was no other school district that we're aware of that submitted a budget that was not in compliance with the law. They were all balanced budgets and they were all within the 4 percent. If every other district in the state can do it, I don't understand what's so unique about North Smithfield."