2006-03-23 / Front Page

Council satisfied with school budget

By Donna K. Drago

The Town Council asked for no further cuts from the School Committee's $10.67 million budget at their joint work session Tuesday night.

The fiscal year 2007 school spending plan is 5.56 percent higher than this year's school budget and asks the town for a general fund contribution of 4.8 percent.

After the presentation by Superintendent Kathy Sipala, the questions asked by any members of the Town Council were primarily of a clerical nature. The meeting lasted just over one hour.

One new topic that seemed to raise hairs on the backs of the school board members' necks was on how much money a school department should keep in its reserve fund.

Council President David Long, who had a prior conversation about the matter with Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, asked Keiser to talk about what other towns do with their surplus funds.

Keiser said in South Kingstown, the town in which he recently served as an assistant administrator before taking the Jamestown post, they would take the audited surplus balance and "carry it forward in its entirety" to the next year's spending plan.

Keiser and Financial Director Tina Collins said that they "did some quick research," and asked questions of their financial advisor First Southwest of Lincoln that afternoon. They were told that it was "atypical for schools to carry a large fund balance," Keiser said.

The school district's current fund balance is some $446,000, according to the audit completed for July 1, 2005.

Council Vice President Julio DiGiando was the first of the councilors to ask the school board what they planned to do with that money.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser said they would not use the surplus to fund operating expenses. They would use it instead to pay for capital expenses, some $68,637 of which would be used to fund a portion of the $119,880 in capital projects to be expended in fiscal year 2007, she said.

"There's a certain level we need to keep," to fund unexpected costs such as "one medicallyfragile child who might come into the system," she noted.

In all the years he has been on the council, an exact figure for a proper school reserve balance had never come up, Long pointed out. "It's always been referred to as "x" amount," he said.

School board member William "Bucky" Brennan said it was a perfectly valid question and that an amount had never been settled on in past discussions.

"This is a very serious conversation," Kaiser, the committee chairwoman, said about the fund balance. "We need to look at it statewide," she added. She brought up the topic of pending litigations and said that those kinds of payments are not in the budget. "Where do payments come from if they're not in the budget?" Kaiser asked.

"We're open to having the discussion, Kaiser said, but she added, "Everyone needs to know what could happen" if there was no emergency funding source.

Bruce Keiser said for towns, a balance of between 20 and 25 percent was suggested, and that Jamestown currently carried a surplus of some $4.3 million in its coffers, which is about 17 percent of the total budget.

"You could always ask the town" for money if, for example, the roof blew off one of the schools, Keiser said, noting that the town technically owns the school buildings.

The budget presented to the council was smaller than that passed by the School Committee last month. A savings of some $41,742 was realized after they received next year's rates for Blue Cross health insurance, Sipala said.

The greatest increases to the budget are similar to those in recent years. Sipala listed them as contributions to the pension system, health-care costs, rising fuel charges, charter-school tuitions, and increased incidences in the number of children with autism.

Two contracts that expire on June 30 are currently being negotiated between the school district and the Jamestown Teachers' Association and the Jamestown Educational Support Personnel Association. Exact figures for salaries could not be put in the spending plan, so estimates of the expected increases may change depending on the collective bargaining outcomes.

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