Schools look to use $450K in health care savings to retain sports

Schools look to use $450K in health care savings to retain sports

NORTH SMITHFIELD - The School Department's 2015 budget just got a needed boost and many of the cuts predicted for next year may not happen under the latest spending plan presented this week by Supt. Stephen Lindberg.

The district's new proposal restores the varsity, junior varsity and middle school athletics programs and takes several proposed cuts to staffing off the chopping block, thanks to a surprise health care rate change that will allow the department to spend $456,525 less next year.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," Lindberg said. "It's a wonderful windfall."

"The rate came in lower than we expected for next year," explained Business Manager Lisa Marcotte during a presentation on the change to the School Committee Tuesday night.

Lindberg said it's only the second time in 15 years the district has received such reduction, and that the 7 percent rate change was based on what those in the health care industry call "experience" or the relatively low overall claim rate demonstrating the health of the group. Savings will also be shared with employees, who will find themselves paying slightly less next year for health insurance.

The upbeat news, and the plan to present a balanced budget that includes sports next year, comes even while the School Department continues to consider legal action over last year's funding. Auditors are still in the process of looking at the department's predicted deficit for this year and the School Committee considered action related to potential litigation on the School Department deficit during closed session at the meeting.

While the department's total planned spending for the year has not changed - the 2015 budget remains at $24,742,515 - the savings can be applied to other areas. Retaining the sports program, which was scheduled to be slashed for next year in a previous version of the district's budget presented in March, will eat up the largest chunk of those savings - $241,943 will be used for operations, and pay for the coaches and athletic director needed at the varsity and JV level, and another $13,564 will be used for the middle school program.

Also restored are stipends for eight department heads totaling $30,574, a custodial position with a salary of $56,257, a half-time guidance clerk with a salary of $13,712, middle school team leaders costing $21,103, and $2,000 in funding for the We the People program. Another $114,066 is allocated to a line item for "department head teacher duties."

While it is still early in the budget process - the spending plan must ultimately be approved by the Town Council and will not be finalized until July - the extra spending cash will likely help alleviate some of the tension between the department and the town's Budget Committee. Budgeters and school officials clashed during the 2014 budget season and disagreements over access to records and transparency ultimately resulted in level funding for the district.

"We thought that the estimate they were using for health care was high, but they hadn't received confirmation from the insurance company," said Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford in reaction to the news. "We are very delighted that the estimate came in lower than expected."

The school spending plan is, however, still based on one figure that will undergo scrutiny over the next several months. The budget anticipates an additional $719,075 contribution from the town, the maximum 4 percent increase in allocation allowed under state law.

"This is contingent upon that," said Lindberg. "If the 4 percent local appropriation does not happen even with the fact that we were able to help ourselves out tremendously with a half a million dollar savings, (the plan) is contingent upon it."

Lindberg also warned that the department may need to revisit the proposal to include input from the directors of athletics and pupil personnel services.

"The current PPS director did not participate in the development of the PPS budget and has already made significant changes within the department," a memorandum stated.

Still, school officials generally seem to be a bit happier with this year's budget process, a result, in part, of the other sources through which they hope to receive revenue for what they say are long needed improvements.

The town's Planning Board is currently supporting some $374,000 of the School Department's capital improvement requests, a line item considered separately from the district's overall budget.

Funding for requests for needed items such as technology improvements, duct work and a new pick up truck could finally come through this year.

Additional needs may be met if voters approve the town's $12 million bond referendum next fall, including upgrades to the high school science labs.

The School Department's spending plan will now be taken up by the Budget Committee and board members will make their recommendations to the Town Council. The final plan will go before the council for a vote in July.