School funding debate delays No. Smithfield budget decision

School funding debate delays No. Smithfield budget decision

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Approval of the town's fiscal plan for the 2014-2015 year was delayed Monday night after Town Council members could not decide how best to fund schools.

The meeting was continued to Monday, June 23.

While the council was able to agree most of the line items in the seven-page, $39 million document, progress halted as they looked at funding for the School Department. Both Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton and the Budget Committee had recommended increasing the local appropriation by around 2 percent, or $370,000 in the committee's case, with Hamilton's figure lower by just $6,000.

The School Department, however, has requested a 4 percent increase, for a $728,675 rise in the town funding. The meeting brought out about two dozen parents, teachers and supporters who sat watching, waving signs that read "Fund School for Greatness - 4 percent," and "Give our kids 4 percent."

A similar crowd had turned out for the public hearing last Thursday, June 12, when the council heard more than an hour of testimony against the recommendations.

"I was very upset when I heard about the recommendation from the Budget Committee and then when I heard from Ms. Hamilton about only getting the 2 percent," said Natalie O'Brien, a teacher at North Smithfield High School. "I certainly think that our schools and our students deserve more than that."

Teacher Tracey Nangle became irate while explaining her case to the council.

"I can't tell you how much I resent being here, yet again. Another round of trying to tell people how important it is to fund education," said Nangle. "As far as I'm concerned you're all cowards. You allow the Budget Committee to cherry-pick numbers. You don't look at the whole picture."

School Committee member Christine Bonas discussed a recent decision issued by the New England Association of School and Colleges - the organization that provides school accreditation - placing the high school on warning status. Principal Robert Mezzanotte has until March 1, 2015 to submit a progress report.

Bonas pointed out that one reason given for the warning was the school's "lack of an adequate and dependable budget."

"It is unfortunate that the Town Administrator and the Budget Committee are suggesting that two percent will be enough to support the School Department. It would be a mistake," Bonas said.

On Monday, at least one council member appeared to take the warning to heart.

State law dictates that the town can only increase the levy - or total dollar amount taken in through taxes - by 4 percent each year. With money set aside for the town's capital expenditures and increases in many departments, the total funding leftover was limited.

After working through the budgets for every department in town except schools, Councilor Edward Yazbak spoke up.

"How much money do we have left in this budget right now?" he asked.

Finance Director Brenda McDonald finished the calculations, and determined that there was little available beyond the 2 percent increase.

Looking at the revenue budget, Yazbak pointed out that the town is predicting only $125,000 in revenue from transfers on real estate next year, although the figure for the current year is $173,780. An increase in revenue would give the councilor more to dedicate towards schools.

"Can we increase that number by $50,000?" Yazbak asked.

After more calculations, Councilor Kimberly Alves made a motion to allocate $18,659,159 to the School Department, exceeding the Budget Committee's recommendation by $72,291. The motion died for lack of a second.

Yazbak suggested funding half of the line item for capital projects with lease purchasing to free up around $200,000 more.

The council unanimously agreed to continue the meeting on Monday.

Comments

I am in favor of the 4 % increase in the Education budget even though it means a slight increase in taxes. Education is and will always be the number 1 reason why young couples move into a community. So put the politics aside and do what is right for our children and grandchildren and "GO FOR 4 ".

If the 4% went to the students directly, then great. It doesn't. 70% of the town budget goes to the school and 80% of the school budget goes to Admin costs, like salaries, pensions, benefits, brand new pick up trucks, paying for the education of a school therapist. This is bad spending. The Superintendent is paid WAY too much, then takes his over 135K a year and spends our money in MA, where he lives. The schools need better programs, not more money. If they show better spending habits and record keeping transparency, maybe they wouldn't cause such harsh feelings from a lot of the residents. I have a child in the district, that I'm thinking of putting into private or charter schooling because the school here is run so badly.
Attend the School Committee meetings and see for yourself how they spend our money. I'm glad it didn't pass last night.