2011-02-24 / News

School Committee approves $11.8 million budget

By Geoff Campbell

The Jamestown School Committee unanimously approved the 2011-2012 budget at its Feb. 17 meeting, moving it forward to the Jamestown Town Council for approval.

At the second of two School Committee meetings last week, Superintendent Marica Lukon presented a revised 2011 budget that included a $63,000 reduction in expenses resulting in a total budget of $11.8 million.

The budget decreases were the result of the difference between projected and actual insurance costs. The health and dental insurance costs represented a $60,000 savings.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island has confirmed that the increase will be 9.8 percent instead of the 15 percent that was projected initially. Additionally, there is a $2,623 savings in the actual cost of the district’s liability insurance.

The planned general fund contribution from the town, which began the budget process as a 2.56 percent increase over last year, is now projected to be 1.99 percent. The overall budget increase, including total costs and additional revenue sources, has moved from a projected 2.41 percent increase to an increase of 1.86 percent.

The positive news prompted a review of other assumptions including the state-aid funding assumption, which in a worst-case scenario would be no aid and in the best-case scenario would be nearly $250,000, according to Lukon.

She reminded the Committee that the exact number will not be known until the summer and she has recommended that any shortfall be funded with a one-time hit to the reserve, which would be budgeted for in the following fiscal year.

Budgeting for a possible shortfall in this manner protects kids from wholesale changes in schedules and class size, and it protects teachers from surprise cuts weeks or days before school starts.

Lukon said that the worst-case scenario is unlikely. Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser also pointed out that recent reports from Providence suggest that state revenues are up.

At the Feb. 17 meeting, Committee member Julie Kallfelz asked Lukon to review those items that were initially considered for inclusion in the budget but were later discarded. Kallfelz said that it was evidence of the positive fiscal restraint that the administration has demonstrated in presenting such a “responsible budget.”

Lukon described several staff additions, which were initially considered, such as an additional language teacher and more administrative assistance, but in the end she said that she was pleased with the budget and its ability to advance the district’s educational goals.

Prior to the unanimous confirmation of the budget, Committee members expressed their gratitude to the entire administration for the clear budget presentations, the thorough process and for a responsible budget that reflects the teaching and learning goals of the district.

Further potential savings may result if retirees, who have reached 65 years old, move from the district’s Blue Cross Blue Shield policy to the Medigap 65 policy, which provides supplemental coverage to Medicare. Medigap 65 is less expensive, both to the individual and the district, according to Kaiser. Kaiser added that officials at Blue Cross Blue Shield have confirmed that retirees, if after a year, are dissatisfi ed with Medigap 65, they will be able to rejoin the district’s other plan.

Two retirees have already made the switch and Kaiser suggested that the School Committee lead the effort to make an informative presentation to the district retirees at a group meeting with the Blue Cross Blue Shield account representative present. Committee members Dana Long and Kallfelz agreed to work on arranging the meeting.

The North Kingstown High School tuition contract has yet to be finalized both in terms of a final number and language. Julia Held, North Kingstown School Committee liaison, reported that she is “not sure where they are” and that discussions regarding the contract can be “somewhat contentious.” Held confirmed that the initial vote to approve the contract and tuition costs as proposed by North Kingstown’s superintendent, Dr. Phil Thornton, still stands, and that no further votes have been taken.

At its Feb. 15 meeting, the Jamestown School Committee revisited the question of adding a teacher to the staff in order to increase the current teacher-tostudent ratio for the fourth grade.

A presentation by Lukon and Lawn Avenue School Principal Kathy Almanzor followed. Test scores and a brief history of the faculty structure used to meet the needs of the class since they were first graders were presented.

Comparisons to the current eighth grade – a class similar in size and achievement levels when they were in the fourth grade – indicated that the district goals of accelerating learning, improving curriculum and addressing the particular needs of the class will be best served by providing a third teacher for the 39 students scheduled to be part of next year’s fifth-grade class.

Lukon added that there would continue to be three classes for the present third graders when they move to fourth grade next year. Lukon said that the additional teacher is a net wash given the reduction in staff of a special education teacher.

Gwenn Spence, the director of student services, said that the staff reduction in special education was simply the result of having too many teachers for the number of students. “It was a good decision based on solid facts,” she said.

The Committee agreed that the progress of the current eighth grade has been remarkable and Lukon reminded the group that ongoing efforts are being made on behalf of all of the students “to insure the achievement of the overall goal of accelerating the learning of all of our students.”

Committee member B.J. Whitehouse sought to verify that the comparisons between the current fourth grade and the eighth grade were analogous. Both Almanzor and Lukon assured him that they were and Lukon volunteered to provide additional graphs.

Whitehouse explained that he wanted as much information as possible in order to address the community should questions arise. He said he wanted to be able to assure inquiring community members that “the children are being served to the best of our ability.”

Following a review of additional supporting documents presented to the Committee on Feb. 17, Whitehouse said that he was grateful for the additional information and that all of his questions had been answered. He added that the longitudinal data of class comparisons was, as Kaiser said earlier in the week, “very compelling.”

Whitehouse noted that 96 percent of the current eighth grade demonstrated proficiency or better on state writing assessments, yielding the highest writing scores in the state.

The Elizabeth Stone Scholarship Selection Committee was impaneled and will include for Kallfelz, Nora Santamour and Fran Gorman.

The Elizabeth Stone Fund scholarship, created by the estate of Jamestowner Elizabeth Stone, is a one-time award for freshman year expenses accrued at an accredited four-year higher education program.

Lukon also announced that Jamestown Educational Support Personnel Association union members passed a tentative twoyear agreement that provides a one-time pensionable, but not added to the salary base, payment of $500 for custodians and teaching assistants, and $100 for bus monitors. The payments will occur in the first payroll check of December 2011.

The second year of the contract will include regular step increases where applicable and a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase for all union members. In July 2012, four custodial staff members whose hire date enabled them to contribute 5 percent to their health insurance cost will move to a 10 percent contribution. All other custodians are at 15 percent.

The Committee approved a bid on additional parking lot lights. The board unanimously approved the $2,772 bid by North East Electrical Distributors. The lights will be installed after the snow piles have melted.

The Committee also passed two resolutions, one in support of state Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s Transforming Rhode Island Education Plan and her continued tenure. They also passed a resolution opposing binding arbitration. Both resolutions will be distributed to state officials.

In the superintendent’s report, Lukon explained the district’s options if additional snow days were required. Lukon said that some relief has been offered by the state regents in the form of an optional two-hour delay instead of the single hour permitted in the past. Lukon pointed out that a two-hour delay could make the difference in allowing the Department of Public Works to make the roads safe enough to get to school in order to meet the three-hour instructional time requirement to count the day.

Should further snow days be used, the state requires that they be made up in one of the following methods: Saturday classes, shortening either the winter or spring vacations, attending classes on Good Friday or converting professional days to school days. Lukon emphasized that the state does not allow for counting hour equivalents; the law requires students to receive a minimum of three instructional hours a day for 180 days.

Lukon said that currently the last day of school is planned for June 22.

Lukon also described the schedule for Gist’s visit on March 8. The day will include a classroom visit, separate conversations with teachers, administrators and Committee members, and the day will conclude with a public forum in Town Hall from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

A joint meeting between legislators, the Town Council and the School Committee is scheduled for March 7. No time has been announced.

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