2008-11-06 / Front Page

Council, school panel discuss budget outlook

Cost-saving ideas include closing Lawn Avenue School
By Sam Bari

Federal entitlement grants and state aid to schools will play a role in the shaping of the Jamestown Schools 2009-2010 budget, according to discussions at the Town Council and School Committee second joint workshop last Thursday.

Due to the economic downturn, every issue discussed at the meeting was eventually centered on budget considerations. The subject matter predetermined by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and School Superintendent Marcia Lukon included school bus drivers, enrollment and class sizes, budget parameters, possible revenue sources, and the scope of an organizational and management study.

During the discussion on costs that drive the school budget, Dr. Lukon said, "We are very worried about our entitlement grants and our federal grants. Some $378,000 in salaries are paid out of grants. If those grants are reduced, we'll have to move that cost into the operating budget." She said that the 2009 budget depended on the grants to pay the salaries that were special-education related.

Although the three major budget drivers were identified as salaries, benefits and special education tuitions, other line items likely to increase include workers' compensation, liability insurance, repairs, maintenance supplies, service contracts, purchased services, special education services, and tutoring, Lukon said.

Both the town administrator and School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser said there was a good possibility that aid to cities and towns will be reduced in the current budget and that state aid to schools will decrease in 2010. Kaiser acknowledged that the alleged decreases were rumors. However, other programs that are experiencing substantial cuts are good indicators for future expectations, she added.

Despite the negative impacts on the budget, some good news emerged. The town administrator said that both the town and the school department will benefit from a three-year electricity rate of 9.4 cents per kilowatt-hour negotiated by the League of Cities and Towns.

Also, after the meeting, Facilities Director Lewis Kitts demonstrated lighting systems controlled by motion sensors in the school gym that automatically turn off when movement was not detected after 15- minutes. Kitts said that the systems would substantially reduce energy costs.

Lukon addressed enrollment and class size, but said that due to unknown military enrollment figures, an exact prediction was not possible until later in the year.

When discussing the budget parameters, the 4.75-percent legislated tax cap was mentioned, but the consensus was that until the effect of the recession on grants, entitlements and state aid was established, a realistic evaluation could not be ascertained.

Possible revenue sources, including tuition students from other cities, did not look encouraging. Dr. Lukon said that Philip Thornton, interim superintendent of the North Kingstown School District, said that some NK parents voiced objections to a plan to send students to Jamestown schools.

Lukon said that the NK School Committee decided to monitor enrollments for the following year with the hope that tuitioning students to another district will not be necessary. Lukon also reported that Pathways will probably not rent space at Lawn school next year. Because of their age, local students enrolled in the special education program will be moving to other programs.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that he had conversations with the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) concerning a current study on Aquidneck Island on organizational and management consolidation. Keiser suggested the possibility of a Jamestown town and school administrative structures and management systems study to determine whether economies could be realized through restructuring.

The matter was informally discussed at an August meeting when the two groups determined that the consolidation of business operations between the two schools was impractical. However, they agreed to defer any decision until the cost figures from RIPEC were available.

Councilman William Kelly again raised the possibility of closing the Lawn Avenue School and made an appointment with Dr. Lukon to discuss the matter, as well as the budget. Kelly later clarified his intent and said, "A 20-percent increase in costs is substantial. Not that I doubt its legitimacy, but these are tough financial times. I think it is our responsibility to review all possibilities and go over the budget again to see if there might be something we missed."

After listening to the possibility of substantial budget cuts, school committee member B. J. Whitehouse said, "If taxes have to go up, that means mine are going up and I don't have children."

He also said, "I don't want to be fiscally irresponsible, but I'm thinking more about that eight-year old kid that just wants to be educated than I am thinking about the taxpayers and how much it's going to cost them."

"I'm going to take out my sharp pencil and my calculator and check with the administration to make sure that everything is okay. But my philosophy through this is going to be to educate children," Whitehouse said.

Town Administrator Keiser responded to Whitehouse and said that Jamestown is, fortunately, not in as bad a shape as other communities because, "We get a very small percentage of our school budget from state funding. We are 95-percent self-sufficient. We just have to look at ways of being more efficient and prioritize our services."

Councilman Robert Sutton also commented on Whitehouse's statement and said, "We can't think that way. We can't just expect the taxpayers to automatically absorb cuts in funding." He suggested proceeding with caution and to consider what can be done without grant money, and think about other ways to accomplish educational goals without automatically raising taxes.

After the meeting, Chairwoman Kaiser said, "The commitment of the school committee is to meet the needs of all students while being responsive to the needs of the community." The two groups agreed to meet again in January.

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