Cumberland budget approved

Cumberland budget approved

School funding fix a work in progress

CUMBERLAND – The Town Council has given first and second passage to Mayor Jeff Mutter’s 2021-2022 budget, but with the town’s unsynchronized budget, residents will have to wait until next spring to know where it will all end up and how it will impact tax rates.

During a second budget hearing and first vote last Wednesday, June 2, the council granted first passage while making no changes to the $108 million budget, which will see total general revenue rise from $74.21 million to $77.25 million.

Mutter and the council delivered praise to town workers, school staffs, and residents for how they rose to the challenge of the past year. Mutter said there were plenty of inspiring moments, from birthday celebrations and food deliveries to town vaccination efforts. Residents, he said, have been so patient and kind throughout, giving town staff the benefit of the doubt, while the Town Council and School Committee have shown steadfastness throughout as they’ve waded through one virtual meeting after another.

Council President Mike Kinch was also effusive in his praise of Mutter, saying the successes during the pandemic were not an accident and were accomplished because of his leadership and his guiding the town through one of the worst 14-month periods in modern history.

“I don’t think you get enough credit for it,” he said.

While plenty of elected leaders have dealt with short-term events such as snowstorms and hurricanes, he said, this was an extended period of unprecedented challenges and a constant need to adapt.

Mutter described the situation Cumberland is facing with lost state school aid and said how he’s trying to help the schools while giving them less than half of a $1.85 million budget request. The fact that state aid under the funding formula is lower than it was three years ago puts an extra burden on the property tax side of the budget, he said, though leaders are keeping the projected tax increase at 2.37 percent.

School Supt. Bob Mitchell and Assistant Supt. Tony DiManna explained school funding issues at length last week, telling the council how they’re trying to continue the advances the schools have made while adding the staff needed to stem the tide of any backward movement brought about by the impacts of the pandemic. Mitchell said that to see School Business Manager Alex Prignano and Mutter work so hard at being creative in filling the gap between the $848,000 Mutter was willing to increase the school budget on the taxpayers’ maintenance of effort requirements going forward and the $1.85 million the schools were looking for has been truly impressive. Through a variety of one-time creative ways, he said, the sides were only about $300,000 short of what the schools were asking for as of that meeting.

Mutter noted the partnership the parties have cultivated, praising school staff and leaders for their academic achievements and saying that being a school administrator over the past year has to have been the most difficult job anyone could have. He said it’s important to keep putting resources into the academic achievements of the past few years while planning for coming payments on the school bond.

DiManna said that one year of growth in a district might be an accident, but six years of growth is certainly not, and administrators put together their best proposals for sustaining that success. Mitchell added that there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.

Not factored into the budget proposed by Mutter and approved by the council are COVID relief and federal rescue funds coming to the town and schools. Mutter reiterated that he plans to establish a committee to decide how those funds should be used, and said the money will hopefully be used to relieve the tax burden. He said there are “a lot of unknowns” in the year ahead. Answering Councilor Scott Schmitt, he said the plan is to come back to the council with proposals for the money, including capital improvements.

Addressing the Rhode Island Department of Education not condoning the use of federal school funds to finance positions, Mitchell said he’s not sure how the district could possibly address learning loss without adding positions, particularly since the single greatest factor in student achievement and addressing “concerning areas of loss” is the ability of the teacher. He said the district is hoping to be able to maintain some of the positions it adds as other staff leave in future years.

Councilor Bob Shaw urged school leaders to be creative in keeping the positions even after federal funding runs out, saying he believes the issues with student learning are going to last beyond two years.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said she’s optimistic about how the federal funds might be used to retool operations within schools. She also noted how the recent strength of the schools has strengthened the town, particularly in rising property values, but said at some point some attention will have to be given to revamping a funding formula that’s pulled money away from Cumberland as those values have increased. Beaulieu said all she asks for over the next year is that changes to the school budget be brought back to town officials as budget amendments.

At last week’s budget hearing and first budget hearing, Councilor Peter Bradley made a motion to move $162,000 from the town solicitor’s budget to outside legal fees, but that motion failed for a lack of a second. Bradley was the lone no vote on the budget. The council voted to approve it for second and final passage on Monday.