Town Hall sports fund ignored by school board

Town Hall sports fund ignored by school board

NORTH SMITHFIELD - School Department officials said this week that budget constraints may force them to cut middle school sports, even as they weren't acknowledging at Tuesday's meeting the full sports funding for the program was set aside by the Town Council during budget talks this year.

Questioned by The Breeze after their meeting Tuesday, School Committee members said they're not sure if all athletics are part of their 2014 budget plan.

And they expressed only vague knowledge about the $240,000 in sports funding sitting in a Town Hall account.

In a process that saw months of conflict over budget accountability between school and town leaders, the Town Council created a special contingency fund this year, setting aside $240,000 for sports - $200,000 for varsity, $20,000 for middle school and $20,000 for junior varsity.

The athletics funding, which proponents of the plan said is all too often targeted for cuts, will be given to the department only if they elect to maintain the programs.

No mention of that fund, however, was made at the School Committee's meeting this week, as Supt. Stephen Lindberg laid out the latest document of proposed cuts to facilities, staffing and programs. And although the dedicated sports account marks an $240,000 increase over the town's appropriation last year, none of the five board members disputed Lindberg's assessment that the district had been "level funded."

"It's not necessarily a draft that we're proud of but we've done the best we can," Lindberg told the committee Tuesday as he outlined a spending plan to realize some $391,000 in savings through staffing changes.

Cuts were made, he said, to reflect the schools' allocation by the Town Council this year.

Positions on the proposed chopping block included a 3rd-grade teacher at Halliwell, a reading teacher, a physical education teacher and a secretary at the high school, among others.

Some $14,275 could be saved, reportedly, by the cutting of middle school sports.

"Over several weeks of hard work we've done everything we could to restore facilities positions and programs in order to comply with the town's zero increase in local appropriation," said Lindberg.

The only vague reference to the unique sports funding plan, or the money awaiting the department in that municipal budget line, was made by committee member George Hemond.

"I have read the Board of Education's Basic Education Plan page by page, and no where in this document does it require athletics. I am driven now, almost as a reaction, to place the Basic Education Plan as my utmost priority," said Hemond.

"Education above everything," he said. "Given the extent situation that we have been placed in, I will be voting against every single athletic expense proposed until such time as this district is in full compliance with basic education."

Committee Chairman Robert Lafleur, meanwhile, asked Lindberg to revisit the budget document in an attempt to restore several items, including middle school sports.

Asked later if the department intended to use the $240,000, money the department will lose if it opts to cut sports programing, Lindberg replied "no comment."

Board member William Connell, the committee's liaison to the council, sat in on several of the meetings where the plan to create a contingency sports fund, devised with the help of the town's Budget Committee, was discussed and ultimately approved.

Asked if school would utilize the $240,000, Connell replied "I think both the School Committee and the Town Council want to see sports go forward, we're just kind of working on how we're going to get there. It's a fluid process right now."

Hemond said the committee was "keeping sports in the budget as much as possible."

"You need to do what you can do," he said. "This is not a simple answer."

Hemond said he had yet to see the exact wording from the council regarding use of the contingency fund.

Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford was a major proponent of the plan to withhold sports funding, which he's said is used to "pull at the heartstrings" of the community every year rather then search for meaningful cuts.

He told The Breeze this week that an earlier document from the department saw $20,000 saved by cutting middle school sports. Junior varsity sports made up an additional $20,000, and just under $200,000 was what the department said they'd save by cutting the varsity program.

"It's really very simple," said Clifford. "If the School Department decides to run the program, then the money will be forwarded to them. All they have to do is communicate that they want to run a full sports program."

Lindberg said he would "try" to comply with Lafleur's request that middle school sports remain.

"If the School Committee wants, Mrs. Marcotte and I will go back and trim the budget in order to do our best to restore things," he said, referring to the department's business manager.