N.S. schools seeking 4 percent increase amid rising COVID costs

N.S. schools seeking 4 percent increase amid rising COVID costs

NORTH SMITHFIELD – There are still far more unknowns than certainties about how schools will reopen next fall amid a global pandemic, but the one thing that’s sure is it’s not likely to come cheap.

That was the message School Committee Chairman James Lombardi had for town councilors on Monday when the two boards discussed the School Department’s allotment of the coming year’s budget. School officials are seeking an increase of $810,236 from the town, or the maximum 4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

That was the request the department made back in December when they expected a $290,596 increase in state education aid. Since then, that increase has been wiped clean by COVID-19 and replaced by $218,000 in relief funds for coronavirus-related education expenses.

Under the current plan, school officials said they expect state education aid to remain at the current rates until about August, at which point the future of the budget will depend largely on what the state receives in federal stimulus money.

Even with a 4 percent local increase, Lombardi told councilors the department will have to cut $719,000 out of its anticipated budget, which already contained little in the way of additional services. Most of the increase, he said, comes from teacher salary increases, along with increases in out-of-district tuition and transportation costs.

“We’d still be cutting into the bone at the School Department. We would have to cut programs,” he said.

Last month, Town Administrator Gary Ezovski and the Budget Committee both recommended a local School Department increase of $445,630, or 2.2 percent.

The debate is a familiar one in North Smithfield, where school officials often request funds above and beyond the recommendations of the town administrator and Budget Committee. However, this year’s discussion is complicated by COVID-19 and the anticipated reopening of schools on Aug. 31.

Last week, Supt. Michael St. Jean told School Committee members the department is coming up with a reopening plan that will include changes in everything from class sizes to how students store their schoolwork.

“We have to be incredibly creative and very frugal, because some of these changes will come with a financial impact,” he said.

The biggest changes are likely to come in busing, with state officials recommending a dramatic decrease in the number of students on each bus to prevent transmission of the disease. Under the most recent recommendation, Lombardi said the department anticipates adding a third bus run to its morning and evening routes at a cost of between $400,000 and $600,000.

That change, he said, will probably be covered by an anticipated surplus of between $350,000 and $500,000 after the department canceled busing and other services for the last three months of this year. But other changes will also come with a cost, including an anticipated increase in the cost of transportation for students traveling to other districts.

Town councilors acknowledged the uncertainty, with several asking about other factors that could change before the fall.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality that we’re in right now with so many unknowns,” said Council President Paul Vadenais.

The Town Council will vote on the budget during two meetings this coming Monday and Tuesday, June 29 and 30.

Last Thursday, the two boards spent an evening debating the future of an anticipated $200,000 to $290,000 in savings from recent school building projects that came in under budget, another pool of funds affected by COVID-19.

The School Committee had initially planned to put the funds toward new windows at North Smithfield High School, the next project on the list of improvements, but the Town Council had considered putting them toward a study and eventual changes at the Halliwell property.

In the end, neither project got the majority of the funds. School officials explained that with airborne transmission of COVID-19 posing a risk to students in the fall, improvements to the HVAC system at North Smithfield Elementary School had now become the top priority. The Town Council voted to split the balance, with $100,000 going to the Halliwell project and the remainder going to the School Department for the HVAC project.

Comments

In a time of uncertainty and taxpayers uncertainty of jobs and future income the clueless school committee is asking for the maximum 4% increase instead of tightening the belt and level funding union salaries and spending. So senior citizens in North Smithfield who are unlikely to see an increase in social security will have to absorb 4% increase. Why don’t we ask a smaller group of greedy union employees to sacrifice like everyone else in the town. No one in the town is going to be getting a 4% raise let alone a raise this year so the school department so be no different.

There are many ways to flat line the budget. Cut all sports for next year because if we can’t sit on the bus or class room with social distance we can’t play sports. Also what happened to the money for all the spring sports that did not happen or did we just pay the coaches who did not work. We should also have had savings in busing with no school for March to a June. I think we need a spending audit of all expenses from March to June. Fiscal spending controls and budget creativity appear to be lacking.