Joint budget meeting causes confusion among school committee members
Monday night's joint budget meeting between the Jamestown Town Council and the School Committee left some school committee members scratching their heads.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser presented what he called "a bare bones budget" to the entire school committee along with Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lukon, school Principals Carole Melucci and Kathleen Almanzor, Director of Pupil Services Dr. Robert Fricklas,
Business Manager Jane Littlefi eld and Director of Buildings and Facilities Maintenance Lew Kitts.
The presentation was thorough and offered a substantial amount of information, but some school committee members were expecting more in the way of dialogue between the two committees. As the meeting drew to a close, school committee member William "Bucky" Brennan raised his hand and asked, "Why are we here?" to which Keiser responded, "I wanted you to see that we hadn't reached the bottom with our tax base so that you would know there was some room to maneuver."
Earlier in the meeting there seemed to be some confusion over why the school committee was in attendance when town council member William A. Kelly said, "I think the school committee has something to present." Stunned school committee members looked to Chairperson Cathy Kaiser who shook her head, no they did not have a presentation prepared.
Given the dire financial crisis facing the country, Keiser said, town council member Robert Sutton had earlier suggested a preliminary budget meeting be held to get a broad overview of the budget so that decisions could be made as to how best to respond. To that end, Keiser felt it best to include school committee members in the process. "Back in October we held a joint town council/school committee meeting," Keiser said. "We met to discuss what we saw in the upcoming budget year and agreed to meet again." By including school committee members in the process and by attending their preliminary budget session, Keiser, Barbara Szepatowksi and Mike White were in attendance at the presentation of the school committee budget, Keiser said that he hoped to develop more open communication and a more empathic understanding of what each committee faced in this difficult fiscal year. Since this is a new process for both committees, Keiser said, that may have contributed to the confusion along with the wording "joint budget meeting."
Other school committee members took it in stride and acknowledged that the process is new, but that it is certainly a step in the right direction. "I did not have any specifi c expectations other than hearing the town budget presentation," School Committee Member Julie Kallfelz said. She did say she was hopeful that the increased communication between committees would lead to an improved process for both. "The more aware we are of each others budgets, the more we will be able to manage our own budgets and help support each others goals," she said.
School Committee Member Julie Held shared a similar opinion. "I may have misunderstood the process that was to take place, but I am glad to have the information," Held said. She emphasized the importance of having the town council involved early in the school committee budget discussions. "It is good for the town council to look at our budget and ask questions. That is their role, but by the time March comes around we've already worked through the budget and made decisions so that does not seem to be the optimal time for questions. Hopefully, by continuing to participate in budget discussions, we can begin this process earlier," Held said.
The good news, according to Keiser, is that Jamestown has been less drastically impacted by the fiscal crisis than other communities. Jamestown is less dependent on state aid than many of the other communities in Rhode Island, has a more stable tax base and a lower unemployment rate of 5 percent, compared to 9 or 10 percent in many communities, Keiser said. These factors, he said, along with a history of conservative fiscal management have placed Jamestown in a good position to ride out the crisis.