School board seeking $1 million this year from Smithfield taxpayers

School board seeking $1 million this year from Smithfield taxpayers

Supt. O'Brien: Budget is 'responsible, balanced plan for high quality education'

SMITHFIELD - The School Committee has approved a $34.7 million budget proposal that calls for $1 million more in town funding, 1 percent raises for administrators, a limited number of teacher layoffs and the creation of all-day kindergarten.

As the performance audit predicted it would, preparation of the budget went more smoothly than usual in large part because the School Committee began the job about four weeks later than previous years, committee members said.

The later start on the budget was a key recommendation of the comprehensive performance audit done by B&E Consulting LLC, Providence, and released in November. The actual cost of major expenses, such as employee health insurance rates, could be included rather than estimates often far off the mark.

The proposed operating budget of $34,711,822 for fiscal year 2014-15, which begins July 1, represents a 1.3 percent increase above this year's budget. It calls for an increase of $1.08 million, or 3.9 percent, in the town's contribution, for a total of $28.8 million in local revenue raised by property taxes.

The town level-funded the school department in fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013, providing $26.8 million in each of those years. But, such level-funding "cannot continue," Supt. Robert M. O'Brien said at the Feb. 24 School Committee meeting held at the high school.

O'Brien praised Smithfield students for "enduring" budget cuts, larger classes and reduced supplies and equipment during the recession. But, "now ... after four years of dutifully doing more with less, I believe it is time to seek adequate funding to support the academic, social and emotional growth of all of our students," O'Brien said in his executive summary to the budget.

He called the proposed budget "a responsible, balanced financial plan designed to provide students with a high quality education within the limits of the available resources." The school system has 2,436 students currently enrolled and 320 employees.

The School Committee on a unanimous voice vote approved the proposed spending package, which now goes to the Town Council for its consideration. Voters also will have the chance to let their voices be heard at a Financial Town Meeting usually held in June.

Highlights of the budget proposal include the use of a $550,000 school department surplus, and a projected savings next year of $660,800 from layoffs and jobs left vacant.

In accord with state law, which requires notification by March 1, the committee approved "with regret" the sending of layoff notices to: a high school guidance counselor (Robert Jackson), two full-time teachers (Heather Zartarian, kindergarten, and Kaitlin Kenneally, high school English) and two part-time teachers (Francine Cassano, family consumer science, and Kerri Guillemette, reading specialist at Old County Road). All or some could be called back at the start of the school year depending on finances and enrollment, committee members said. "I hope we can call back as many as possible," said Committeeman Brenden T. Oates.

As they say they have done every year in recent years, committee members called for an end to the March 1 notification requirement, but so far such pleas have fallen on deaf ears in the General Assembly. The March 1 deadline, with union backing, was set to give teachers plenty of time to adjust to being laid off.

The budget proposal includes 1 percent salary raises for 15 administrators, including the superintendent, assistant superintendent, business manager, special education director, technology director, as well as principals and assistant principals. The performance audit recommended increased compensation for the managers because, the audit said, their exceptional competency means they could be lured away to other school districts that pay better. Total cost of the raises is $15,964.

Asked about raises for teachers and other employees, Chairman Richard B. Iannitelli noted that negotiations are set to begin soon with the teachers' union and the outcome will be reflected in revised budget figures, but he added that much depends on the wishes of the Town Council and the taxpayers. The current contract expires Aug. 30. Contracts for clerical workers and other employees are in place and the budget proposal reflects the financial requirements set forth in those two pacts.

State aid next year is budgeted at $5 million, based on Gov. Lincoln Chafee's budget proposal and the intention of lawmakers to fully fund the school aid formula, and includes $34,000 as an incentive for all-day kindergarten. Cost of the expanded kindergarten includes: $369,849 for five teachers (some already on staff); $60,700 for equipment; $19,752 for supplies; and a savings of $58,790 from elimination of mid-day school bus runs.

The performance audit was done at the behest of the Town Council after what turned out to be largely unjustified complaints arose in recent years about School Committee spending and budgeting procedures. The audit urged a later start to budget preparations so that actual costs could be better known.

For instance, the committee was able to free up about $450,000 when the actual cost of health and dental insurance for employees came in lower than originally budgeted. Iannitelli said it was a "real benefit" to have "more reliable" costs in hand. This has been "one of our less painful budgets," Oates observed.

The performance audit also recommended improvements to the executive summary, the narrative that accompanies the budget and explains the reasons for increases/decreases, a suggestion O'Brien took to heart.

He and his management team worked weekends at home, he said, to prepare a 19-page document complete with colored graphs and substantive explanations of those operations affecting finances.

"It was an eye-opener to me," O'Brien said of the expanded summary because "they don't teach you how to do a good executive summary" in the preparation required to be a superintendent.