North Smithfield Town Council offers schools $190,000 budget fix
North Smithfield Town Council offers schools $190,000 budget fix
NORTH SMITHFIELD - Town Council members said Monday that they're not willing to write the School Department a "blank check" for the district's $470,000 budget shortfall.
But members did vote 3-2 to offer up $190,918 to restore some of the recently cut programs and services, if the School Department is willing to agree to a list of 20 conditions.
The deficit was announced on Jan. 22 by school Business Manager Lisa Marcotte, and said to be the result of 18 unanticipated out-of-district placements - special needs students who travel elsewhere for their education.
Under state law, a district must take action to address a deficit once it's identified, and Supt. Stephen Lindberg's "Corrective Action Plan" included immediate suspension of transportation for after-school activities, the elimination of spring sports, and the "freezing" of budget line items for school supplies and graduation ceremonies.
The four-page agreement presented by the council to resolve the issue requires the School Committee to take immediate action to restore those programs and services. It also requires that the committee agree to form a separate "ad-hoc" board to examine the deficit.
According the document, the ad hoc committee would consist of the Lindberg, Marcotte, Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton, School Committee Chairman Robert LaFleur along with a second member of the school board, and Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford with a second member from his committee.
"The purpose of the ad hoc committee shall be to verify the extent of the deficit, review revenue sources including grant funds, identify alternative reductions that could be made in other line items, and monitor spending throughout the remainder of the school year," the agreement states.
Not all members of the council or the public were sold on the plan, which only covers a portion of the reported deficit. Councilors Edward Yazbak and Thomas McGee moved to instead forward the district the $240,000 set aside in the controversial "Sports Contingency Fund," a line item created last year to "protect" sports funding from such potential cuts.
When the School Department balanced its current year's budget to include sports without accounting for the additional funding, town officials withheld the money, saying it was not needed, as the district had identified other areas to cut.
"I think this agreement will not be acceptable to the School Department or the School Committee," said Yazbak. "I firmly believe there was a commitment for sports that we put on the general ledger for $240,000 and I think that would go a long way to solving a lot of this problem."
Yazbak and McGee were outvoted on a resolution to forward the sports contingency fund by 3-2. The pair was also in the minority voting against a resolution to forward the School Committee the four-page agreement proposing the $190,000 short-term fix.
The $190,918 figure comes from the estimated savings the district has said it would garner from the freezing of expenses, $51,041 of which comes from elimination of spring sports. According to the agreement, the money would be appropriated on the last day of fiscal year 2014.
At a special School Committee meeting Tuesday night, it was unclear if members would be willing to accept the proposal. The three committee members present - William Connell, George Hemond and Donna Narodowy - briefly reviewed and accepted a communication on the agreement from Council President John Flaherty and said they would meet in executive session to decide on the matter tonight, Thursday, Feb. 6.
In heated testimony on Monday, however, some members of the public voiced their disapproval.
"Our students are being thrown in the cross-hairs between adults who cannot get together," said Catherine Hall. "If you guys see some kind of failure of the committee to act, it is not in your discretionary authority under the charter to appoint a committee who has no accountability to us whatsoever to do the job of the School Committee."
Parents Mary and Andrew Corshaw said this week that they hope the school board rejects the proposal.
"I think it's just going to put a Band-aid on the situation," said Mary.
"To me, it seems to be a hostile takeover of the School Committee by another elected body," added Andrew. "It's quite over-reaching. They're promising $190,000 at the end of the year when there's already a promise for $240,000 that hasn't been kept."
Tony Guertin, vice president of the North Smithfield Athletic Association, alleged that the council intentionally misled the School Department into believing they would receive the sports funding.
McGee, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that he was present at all of the meetings where the council created the sports contingency plan, and that from his understanding the department was qualified to receive it.
Council members continue to maintain their position that they never intended to forward the sports funding unless the School Department demonstrated the need for the money, and they point to meeting minutes that explain as much.
Some residents seemed to feel the council had devised a reasonable plan.
"We all want what is best for the town, but we have to temper this with what we as a town can afford," said Mally Jones. "Those of us who don't support an automatic writing of a check to address anticipated shortfall are painted as not caring about our children."
"The Town Council has said tonight that they want to get together with the other two groups and find what they missed. Let them do their jobs," said Judith McLaren.
Hamilton said the town has not spent any of the funding set aside in the sports contingency budget.
"I have a fiduciary responsibility to utilize taxpayer dollars in the most effective way," she said. "If we provide funding to help in the short term, and we do not understand why there is a structural deficit, then we are as guilty of propagating a farce to the people of North Smithfield."
Meanwhile, town and school officials continued to struggle over financial information requests, an ongoing battle that began with the start of last year's budget cycle.
Hamilton asked the School Department to fill out a spreadsheet detailing the costs of the department's out-of-district placements with line items referencing students A through Z, including the price and start dates of the tuitions.
Attorney Benjamin Scungio crafted the department's response.
"Please be advised that any information which is personally identifiable or could lead to personally identifiable information is restricted by federal and state rules of confidentiality," the reply stated, while providing none of the requested data.
"Please resist the temptation to make these children a pawn in what has become a very nasty politicized process."
"We did not ask for names," Hamilton told The Breeze.
The administrator received a similar response to a request for information from past district audit reports.
"I believe what you're looking for as far as a report does not exist and therefore may require quite a bit of time," wrote Lindberg. "A project of this magnitude simply has to wait for the time being."
If the committee does not accept the council's agreement at their meeting tonight, both boards are expected to hold a joint meeting with the Budget Committee on Monday.