2009-03-12 / News

Sparks fly over school budget

Tense moments at joint council, school panel session
By Eileen M. Daly

Last week's joint meeting of the Jamestown School Committee and the Town Council quickly turned contentious over the school's proposed budget for 2009-2010.

Superintendent Marcia Lukon presented the Town Council with the same zero-based, level funded budget that had previously been shown to the council and approved by the school committee. School committee members have categorized this budget as "very fiscally responsible."

School committee members were surprised by the Town Council's reaction to their budget.

School Committee Chairperson Cathy Kaiser told the council that the budget proposal assumed level state funding and level impact aid. She said the school committee had already asked the administrative staff to prepare alternative budgets with cuts that reflect possible reductions in aid. "Normally, level funding would represent a worstcase scenario, but with the current economic realities this may be a best-case scenario," Kaiser said.

"None of these cuts will be good for children," she said of the alternative budgets. Kaiser said further reductions in the budget would decrease services to Jamestown's children.

Several town council members questioned the validity of this claim, asking direct questions regarding certain expenditures. Town Council member Robert W. Sutton Jr. questioned class sizes, specifi- cally referring to the fact that certain grades have three classes. He asked why there were not just two classes.

Supt. Lukon said that although some class sizes are small, combining them would then make those class sizes large. Lukon said if Jamestown receives additional students from military families (an often unknown number,) it would be difficult to accommodate them if classrooms were already filled to capacity.

Sutton questioned the terminology of large and small class size and wanted to know who sets this standard. Lukon responded that class size standards are determined by a combination of factors including school committee recommendations, contractual obligations and planning for unknown factors such as last minute enrollments. Lukon also assured town council members that these numbers are constantly reviewed. When possible classes are combined, she said.

Lukon said last year three first grade classes were combined into two classes.

Town Council member William Kelly questioned why per student costs are so high in Jamestown. Kelly said the cities with the three highest per student costs in Rhode Island are Block Island, Central Falls and Jamestown.

Kelly said Block Island's high per student costs could be attributed to its location. "I don't understand why our costs are as high as Central Falls when that system has such severe challenges," Kelly said.

A tense moment involving School Committee Member B.J. Whitehouse and Kelly arose when Whitehouse said, "This is a budget meeting and I understand that, but it is also about kids and I haven't heard them mentioned at all tonight. I don't want to have my taxes raised anymore than anyone else, but we have to do what is best for our children."

Kelly immediately pounced on this statement. "I hope you are not suggesting that there is anyone here who doesn't care about kids. I don't think anyone in Warwick, or other cities who are spending less, cares less about kids," Kelly said.

An even more loaded exchange occurred between Sutton and Whitehouse when Sutton called Whitehouse's argument "goofy." Whitehouse took exception.

Town Council President Julio J. DiGiando cautioned everyone to "be careful what you say and how you say it."

Town Council member Barbara Szepatowski asked the school committee to provide the town council with comparative New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores for Jamestown and Central Falls, making the argument that if there is a sufficient distinction between scores, then comparisons cannot be made with any degree of certainty.

Sutton and Kelly both indicated that this would be a good year to have a school budget with a zero percent increase.

School Committee Chairperson Cathy Kaiser expressed her dismay with this, "We have never been asked to present a budget with no increase," Kaiser said. She referred to the open meeting law and went on to question why this idea had not been discussed previously. "Why has this never come up publicly?" she asked.

Kaiser then asked the town council to give the school committee a clear directive if they would like the committee to prepare a zero increase budget. Council President DiGiando refused, sayng that it is not the town council's place to tell the school committee how to spend the money allotted to them. "We will approve a certain amount of money and then it is up to you to decide how to spend it," DiGiando said.

As the meeting drew to a close, Kaiser said the budget presented assumed level funding. She reminded town council members that if further reductions are made in the current budget to meet a zero increase target and then state funding and/ or impact aid funding is also cut it will result in a serious decrease in services to Jamestown's school children.

Budget discussions will continue with the school committee scheduled to meet at Lawn School today, Thursday, March 12, at 7 p.m.

The next town council meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 30, at 6 p.m. in at Town Hall.

Voters will be asked to approve both the school and the town budgets at the annual financial town meeting in June.

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