2010-04-01 / News

Off-island school budget struggles may affect Jamestown students

By Eileen M. Daly

As Jamestown faces the diffi- cult process of making cuts to its own town budget, school officials must also keep an eye on what’s happening to education budgets in North Kingstown and Narragansett – particularly as the school committee continues to consider future options for the island’s high school students.

Though Jamestown is fiscally sound, the bottom line is that cuts made to school budgets in North Kingstown and Narragansett will affect island kids who attend public high school.

In tough times, program expenses need to be cut – and many of those programs, such as sports, clubs and activities, are those that parents and students have come to expect as part of the educational experience.

That reality – and the not knowing of which programs will have to be cut – frustrates North Kingstown School Superintendent Phil Thornton.

“Most states have a predictable education funding formula. Without knowing, we have to estimate,” Thornton said.

Rhode Island is the only state without an education funding policy – and this lack of an equitable funding policy has not only helped derail the state’s chances of securing round one funds from the federal Race to the Top competition, it is also one of a number of inherent difficulties that school administrators face as they struggle to develop local school budgets.

Last week, Thornton said he was told that the new funding formula would likely result in a loss of $529,000 for North Kingstown. Days later, he said, he was informed that North Kingstown would still lose that amount under the new funding formula, but that it would not be implemented until the 2011/12 school year.

“They weren’t able to get the funding policy done quickly enough to be implemented this year,” he said. “So, instead we will be cut $400,000 from the governor’s cuts and $320,000 in state funding right now.”

Healthcare costs are another unknown in budget talks.

“We estimated that healthcare would increase 10%, but the information we’ve received now has healthcare increasing 17%,” Thornton said.

The new “chart of accounts system” is another source of confusion, he said.

“For instance, we’ve closed Davisville Elementary School. But I won’t know exactly where those teachers and paraprofessionals will be placed until after the job fair. So, for right now, they are all lumped together on one line and that might make some of the numbers seem pretty big,” Thornton said.

As for drawing money out of the surplus fund, Thornton outright refuses to even consider doing that.

“I am not going to take money from the fund balance because it would be irresponsible,” he said, comparing drawing from the surplus fund to buying a car with only enough money to make one payment.

The bottom line, according to Thornton, is that there is already close to one million dollars in unbudgeted expenses.

“There is absolutely no padding in this budget,” he said.

Facing another $460,000 in cuts from the Town Council, Thornton said North Kingstown residents will have to ask themselves what kind of schools they want to have.

If the Town Council cuts that much from the budget, Thornton said, he will be forced to make cuts from such things as sports, the strings program (a music program for string instruments,) late busses, after-school clubs and activities, as well as to make some personnel cuts.

The Narragansett School Department is also in the midst of budget discussions. Narragansett School Superintendent Katherine Sipala was unavailable for comment, but Narragansett School Committee Chairman Tammy Mc- Neiece said the district is still in the process of working through the budget.

“We are still in the middle of the budget process. Our committee approved our budget on March 17, and we will be doing a full presentation to our Town Council on April 5. We have had several budget workshops with our Town Council, and will continue to meet with them throughout budget season. We will likely meet with them again before they approve the preliminary budget for the town on May 17. Since we are in the middle of the working through the budget process with our Town Council, I do not have any further insights to share at this time,” she said.

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