Virus pokes holes in school budget

Virus pokes holes in school budget

LINCOLN – Lincoln school officials admitted at the beginning of the year that 2020 would be a difficult budget season, but did not anticipate that the School Department would later be upended by a global pandemic.

Members of the Budget Board are now asking the School Department to make additional cuts to the budget officials submitted.

The schools were already facing a cumulative deficit heading into the next fiscal year, and have made two rounds of cuts to the budget since the start of the pandemic.

The original School Committee-approved budget sent to the Budget Board represented more than $59 million in total expenditures, but the board is now recommending roughly $57.5 million in expenditures.

Supt. Larry Filippelli said some of the Budget Board’s most recent suggestions on additional cuts would be “exceptionally difficult” for the district.

The roughly $1 million in additional cuts being requested focus on a few specific areas, beginning with transportation.

A Budget Board member ran an analysis and concluded that the district could cut four buses from next year’s budget to save money, which would add five minutes of overall ride time.

Filippelli said he was hesitant to make cuts to the transportation line, especially with kindergarten registration filling up.

“In just kindergarten alone, we’re predicting they’ll be at or over capacity,” he said. “As we start to discuss transportation, those are actual kids that are going to be riding the bus.”

Additionally, he said the district doesn’t know yet what guidelines will be set forth by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office or the Rhode Island Department of Education as a result of COVID-19 concerning busing.

“If they recommend that we can only have eight to 20 kids on the bus, we may have to be adding more buses in September depending on what that area will look like,” he said.

He noted that any numbers analysis must take into account several factors including the number of bus stops, different student needs, the safety of students on the route and monitors doing five-point checks.

The committee discussed the option of tapping a third party consultant to run an independent transportation analysis, but some members were hesitant to spend more money on a study.

Mary Anne Roll said when Lincoln last surveyed parents to see if any families would be willing to give up busing services, only 10 or 15 families were willing to do so.

Since schools closed, the district has opted not to pay its transportation bill to First Student. The busing company has asked the district for at least a partial share to pay administrative fees.

Filippelli said they continue to use First Service to deliver school lunches, but that the district has not been paying out its contract to the company.

School Business Manager John McNamee said with the deficit the district carries he’s “not in a position to recommend paying more at this time” for transportation services not rendered.

The Budget Board has also asked the School Committee to consider putting a freeze on teacher, administrative and non-certified staff salaries. Filippelli said this would require collective bargaining agreements to be opened up to negotiate expected raises.

Roll said the state has been optimistic about receiving federal relief, with some funds going to aid education, “but on the other hand, we may have to look at every cost-saving option,” including salaries.

Roll said her concern was that the district has “no clear sense” of what the return to school will look like, and those unknowns leave it in a difficult position to plan. She recommended they work with a few different versions of the budget this year, accounting for various scenarios.

In other school news, the Lincoln High School construction project has the potential to shave three months off the schedule thanks to school closures.

Filippelli has also begun to create a COVID-19 re-entry taskforce, which he said will likely include educational stakeholders including school and town officials. That committee will be responsible for thinking ahead to the start of school, working out the details of the reopening in Lincoln and how the changes will impact the workforce and students.

“We’d like to get that going sooner rather than later,” he said.