School budget pushes tax hike limit

School budget pushes tax hike limit

CUMBERLAND – More school counselors for the system’s youngest students, expanded “STEAM” programming, reopening school libraries, and an English language learners coordinator are among the initiatives in a $64-million budget presented last week by Supt. Bob Mitchell.

New local tax dollars to support the plan total $1,656,200, the state’s maximum-allowed 4 percent increase, according to his presentation, but town officials are disputing the numbers and calling it “an invalid budget” that would actually need a 5.2 percent increase.

At the heart of the dispute is the $517,000 in the town’s Chromebook funding this year that school officials were counting toward the “maintenance of effort” funding that, once allocated, can’t be reduced in the following year’s budget.

According to state law, residents of a community must provide schools with at least the same amount of support as the previous year. Every new dollar contributed can be rolled into the next year’s request without debate.

However, during a March 16 meeting between the mayor and school superintendent, Mayor Bill Murray reminded school leaders that the town used a lease-purchase plan to buy the Chromebooks over three years and the first year’s payment has yet to be made.

School Committee members last week expressed angry surprise in learning it’s not available as part of the funding foundation next year.

“I’m speechless,” said school board member Ray Salvatore.

Members did say that they want to file an appeal with the state Department of Education.

And Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu immediately shut down any talk of what to cut if the $517,000 is lost.

“We’ll present the best plan we can and won’t say where we could cut,” she said. “If they’re going to not support this, they’re going to make the cuts,” she said of Town Council members, who will have the final say on the budget in June.

The town’s finance director, Brian Silvia, noted later for The Breeze that the decision to finance the Chromebooks over three years came at the June 3 budget approval last year and was later detailed at the time of the actual Chromebook purchase.

“It’s been all over the place,” Silvia said, referencing the Town Council’s online agendas, resolutions and minutes.

There’s also a $182,000 payment on a $5 million bond that the budget plans shifts to the town that Silvia said the town won’t accept.

Scrutiny of Mitchell’s first budget plan was just beginning this week.

The full School Committee anticipates a Thursday, March 31 public hearing. The budget plan is due in Mayor Murray’s hands by April 4.

Murray, who saw the initial draft a day before the School Committee, said he hadn’t studied the budget yet. He commented, generally, “We’ll give them as much as humanly possible but not these numbers they’re trying to fly at us.”

Silvia noted that schools have seen a $1.3 million increase from taxpayers in each of the past three years. The finance director suggests Cumberland’s increases are more than nearly all other communities. (See related story Page 9.)

Meanwhile, the Town Council and School Committee had scheduled their annual joint meeting on Wednesday, March 23, at 6 p.m. in Town Hall.

Some school board members were dismayed to learn that just one hour has been allotted to that session that’s expected to include a report from the budget task force, which began meeting late last year. Immediately after the joint meeting, a 7 p.m. special Town Council meeting is planned that will move $445,000 from the contingency budget to schools, based on a promise made last year.

For teachers, whose contract expires in August, the proposed budget allows for no salary increase beyond step increases for the younger teachers. Administrators are due a 1.5 percent increase according to contracts, Prignano said. And the unionized support staff is getting a small increase, he said.

The budget is balanced with $750,000 from the School Department’s fund balance, less than this year’s anticipated $1 million dip into the surplus funds.

“As you can imagine, it takes a lot of time and effort to prepare a budget,” Mitchell told school board members last Thursday, about his first budget. He went on to highlight four areas of added funding:

• Providing more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programming for students.

• Addressing mental health needs of students by adding five counselors to elementary schools and moving around social workers.

• Hiring an English language learner coordinator, as required by state law.

• Focusing attention on more professional development.

About the STEAM classroom improvements, Mitchell said he wants to add a biology-medical pathway at the high school, as well as embracing the governor’s goals for a computer science programming education initiative. He’s suggesting purchasing the nationally recognized Boston Museum of Science curriculum for all five elementary schools.

On the mental health needs, Mitchell wants to put one school counselor in each elementary school and reassign the current elementary social workers to the two middle schools. The social worker currently serving the middle schools and high school would be assigned just to the high school.

Mitchell noted that in all meetings with elementary school principals, each listed added support for mental health issues at the top or near the top of their priority list.

“This is something we need to support,” Mitchell told the committee. He described “serious emotional needs” in the elementary grades.

Several on hand noted that with the new staffing, Cumberland remains “understaffed.” The Westerly and Johnston districts were mentioned in particular as having far fewer students but more counselors.

Mitchell also wants to commit $100,000 for purchasing outside services for those with significant issues who need more support.

Additionally, he wants to open school libraries that have been closed, with seven half-time clerks in grades K to 8 who can sign out, collect and reshelve the school library books.


“We need to provide students the opportunity to get books,” he said.


His budget also calls for hiring an innovation coordinator to help secure grants and serve as a liaison to the community. 


About the English language learner coordinator, he said, “There’s a desperate need for a person whose time is dedicated to learners and to support teachers.” 


Several on this committee continued their past push for curriculum that challenges the highest achieving students.


Said member Bill Dennen, “There’s an urgency around this. We have kids in classes who are bored.” Dennen complained he just keeps hearing, “It’s coming, it’s coming.”


“Pockets” of challenge material were noted, such as some elementary school children taking algebra, and Assistant Supt. Tony DiManna said specific progress is being made.


Mitchell agreed. “Shame on us for not providing students with what they need. If they’re ready to grow, we should do everything we can to help them take off,” Mitchell said.


Members spent a few moments talking about the successes of Cumberland schools, despite what Beaulieu called “the honest, brutal reality slap that we are operating at a minimum.”


“Yet we’re able to produce good results, with a high degree of customer satisfaction,” she said. “We all know we need more, yet we’re always able to make it work.” 


School Committee member Linda Teel refused to go along with that. “I don’t think we always make it work. We shouldn’t sit around and pat ourselves on the back. There are way too many opportunities our kids are missing.


“There are a whole boatload of things our kids don’t get,” she said.


For example, agreed Mitchell, every school needs K-12 STEM and mental health coordinators. “Even things like supplies,” he said, adding that parents are supporting athletics “out of pocket” as the department provided less than half the amount Lincoln contributed to athletic programs. 


Said Mitchell, “I just come back to the issue of equity. Is it fair? Are our children getting the same opportunities as children in other districts?”


Prignano, who says Cumberland sits in the “perfect storm” of low state aid and high tuition payments to charter schools, urged the committee to identify specific needs as they advocate for the property tax increases. 


“The town doesn’t want to make the tough decisions to generate more revenue,” he said.


Teel noted the budget doesn’t include, for example, the early start time at the high school that’s been talked about for years. “We know it’s in the best interest of students, it changes the tone, behavior, the ability to concentrate.”


Mitchell said later the budget does include $12,000 to hire a consultant to review bus scheduling with an eye on making later start times possible. 


Also missing is funding for an assistant principal at Community Elementary School, where about 575 students attend, 140 more than the second-largest elementary school, B.F. Norton.


Mitchell acknowledged, “That’s one of the most difficult decisions I had to make.”

Comments

Here is a idea! 10% Pay Cut systemwide. Do that and problem is over. Too much money goes to salary!!!!!!!!

Am I reading this correctly?
"For teachers, whose contract expires in August, the proposed budget allows for no salary increase beyond step increases for the younger teachers. ADMINISTRATORS ARE DUE A 1.5 PERCENT INCREASE"??? Why do we need a Town administration and a School administration? Seems to be a duplication of services. We could save a whole lot of money.

Since Rhode Island property taxes are already among the highest in the country, shouldn't the School Committee be looking for ways to cut expenses? What am I missing?

recreation of previously determined unneeded positions as is being done everywhere.

The budget also includes the hiring of individuals in positions that are extremely high paying and having nothing to do with teaching...more do-gooder and medical needs providers, etc.

I just wrapped-up a somewhat opinionated 43-page narrative, put together over the past 20-years (+ or -) that goes back to 1947 in the Cumberland School System, how things were structured, how and what the children were taught, what the costs were...and how, over the years, through ridiculous mandates, legislation, school systems and the education of our children have been made into something that it should not be.

As a result we have the astronomical costs we do...costs that are being wasted in areas that have nothing to do with the basic educational needs of our children. Costs that need to be undone....and in many instances returned to being the responsibility of the State.

This Narrative/Report is available to any Breeze Reader, especially a Cumberland Resident, that would like a copy.

Again, it is 43-pages of very useful, informative information, available as a WORD Document by writing to me at AlfaRacer1@Verizon.net

Tom Letourneau

This has become an annual ritual, the School Committee cry for more money. Not modest increases, but huge increases. The taxpayer is viewed as a bottomless pit, just keep raising taxes, no problem, they will pay.
It is time for a new School Committee, please do not tell me that there are no wasted expenses or inefficiencies in that budget. Perhaps we should do Zero Based Budgeting where each expense must be justified. I like Sado2864's idea above, lets get rid of duplication of effort ,this is a small town, why not? How about regionalization with other districts? We can no longer afford this parochial thinking, we are taxing ourselves out of existence.
Note to School Committee, we are watching. I sincerely hope that the Mayor and Town Council can reign in this madness.

"reign in this madness?"

Cumberland schools are actually underfunded, compared to all our neighbors in RI.

If the schools were funded to the levels of our neighbors they would not have to fight for money every year

While the School Administration, School Committee and RIDE with all of their "Manipulated" reports/comparisons, etc. would like you to believe all of that minutia....IT IS NOT THE CASE!!!

And, while I have been away from the School Committee for a number of years now....the song, year after year after year remains the same.

Having sat 6-years on the System's Finance Sub-Committee, and as concerned as anyone for what is best for ALL of the kids, let me assure you that more often then not, we are not talking Apples to Apples comparisons here.

ALSO...please keep in mind because of Debt Commitments this Town's Citizens took on over the years, to make our schools among the best facilities in the State, the administration does not count, or recognize, that over $5,000,000.00 annual contribution the Town has to make (and does) every year!

Further, after spending 485-million to update all our schools since the 90's through CHS2010, despite being provided millions of dollars for repairs, maintenance, upkeep of all kinds, work was not done! The bulk of that money was squandered!

As a result, today, Mayor Murray has a report sitting on his desk (Ask Him) stating that Cumberland's Schools need $71-Million Dollars, in repairs, maintenance, updates, improvements, etc!

HELLO...is anyone here really paying attention to what is going on and has been going on?

I believed it is spelled as follows?

FINANCIAL INCOMPETENCE AND IRRESPONSIBILITY?

Tom L

Tom, you forgot to mention one thing.

Thank you Dan McKee!

Tom, I am amazed that you keep putting out figures that are not true. Anytime you want to review the list, I can provide it by email to you or anyone else.

The school department can detail work of over $3,666,097 million dollars in capital improvements. Certainty some of the work was done in cooperation with the mayor and town council but the bulk of money is from school funds.

Stop spewing incomplete facts it only goes incite the public into believing no work is being done.

Just recently, RIDE approved our Stage II plan that has over $80 million dollars of work that needs to be done in the school system. Lets remember these are town buildings.

For the longest time until the state ran into financial difficulties, the town would appropriate $400k annually for capital improvements. There were many years that the appropriation was $0.

Anyone can email me at paul.dimodica@cumberlandschools.org and I will email the list of work done from 2012 until now.

The list does not contain the new roof at McCourt Middle School this summer and the replacement of all the unit wall heaters at McCourt and North Cumberland Middle School, the installation of energy controls at both school this summer and continual asbestos removal.

The property and fire taxes are high enough. Please do not raise our taxes! Work with what you have.

Simple!

The reason we are in the trouble we are today is because of the way you and your buddies took care of business back in the day

Already has spent over the years for improvements to EVERY SCHOOL in this Town...a lot of it because proper work and maintenance was not performed annually?

Need I remind you, Paul, that you and I sat on CHS 2010 wherein we spent almost $50-million on the High School...a building that has been allowed to go to Hell in a Hand-Basket from improper upkeep!

At present Paul, and you should know this, so please STOP the mis-facts....The Town currently, every year, has to cut a check for $4,562,219.00, of which $1,517,219.00 is interest, to pay back the bond debt the town incurred, and the citizens approved, to make over $85-million in improvements, repairs, expansions, etc....that, again, the system then, for all intents and purposes, ignored and failed to, on annual basis, maintain them even thought the Town and Taxpayers provided the funds to do so.

Yet, those funds went where Paul?

And, because of this incompetence and irresponsibility, you say we need spend $80-Million more????

Paul I have been involved in EVERY Building Project, and in charge of few, since the 1990's! I know what we have done.

I also sat on and was Chairman of the Buildings and properties Committee for 6-years. During that time frame, for all intents and purposes, not one single suggested repair, improvement, etc. that needed to be done was acted upon. Our being told the money always was needed to be spent elsewhere!

Where did all those millions allocated for building maintenance and upkeep go?

Squandered? Build a surplus, etc.

Paul, you and others may not like what I have to say, or the way I say it...but, I do so with FACTS....not SMOKE, MIRRORS, LIES AND MISREPRESENTATIONS!

LASTLY. Saggerlee above. No offense here, but I do not understand your comment? Please feel free to contact me at Alfaracer1@Verizon.net and I will gladly, and HONESTLY, answer any question you have.

THANK YOU!

Tom L

You haven't presented one verifiable fact to back up you continued accusations of malfeasance on the part of multiple school committees and administrations. Show us the accounting of where the money was "squandered". Millions were spent building the Wellness Center and making improvements to the High School. Is that building a figment of our imagination? Week after week you get on your soap-box spewing your vitriol with nothing to back it up but your opinion, which you hold up as fact.

I took the time to read through your manifesto on the history of school spending in this town. I could dedicate column feet to everything wrong within it but I'll present you with some math that goes against one of your main points: we're spending too much on people. Back in 1947, the year you point to as Nirvana for education in Cumberland, fully 79.94% of the budget of $193k was spent on salaries. For the next budget year superintendent Mitchell proposes to spend 55.8% of the budget on salaries and another 23.32% on fringes which comes to a total of 78.12%. 1.82% less than they spent back in '47. Of course such a comparison is nearly meaningless since 1947 is as different from 2016 as it was from 1847. A fact which seems lost on you.

Saggerlee makes a good observation since, by your own admission, you were in a position of power during these times you claim money was squandered. $85Million is not a lot of money when you're talking about constructing a brand new building and making improvements to thousands of square feet of existing buildings that date back decades. The budgets are public record and despite that you've not offered one shred of proof that money was mis-spent or mis-manged, besides your opinion that it was.

The world has changed Mr. Letourneau. It's not 1947 anymore. Or 1967 or 1997 or even 2007. Accept it, or don't. Embrace it, or don't. I have no doubt that you'll continue spouting off your opinions for anyone who cares to listen but the only one guilty of smoke, mirrors, lies, and misrepresentations (and the repeated brutalization of the English language) is you sir.