2011-05-05 / Front Page

Panel focuses on amending misleading data made by state

By Geoff Campbell

The Jamestown School Committee discussed problems relating to the misleading presentation of comparative district expenses on Rhode Island’s Unified Chart of Accounts Web site at its meeting on April 28.

The Rhode Island Department of Education currently calculates Jamestown’s per-pupil cost by dividing the total district expenses for all students in grades K-12, including the $2.4 million Jamestown spends for 238 Jamestowners to attend North Kingstown High School, by the number of students in grades K-8.

Simply put, all of the costs are divided by some of the students, resulting in an inflated per-pupil cost.

“By counting the NKHS expense but not the students the equalized per-pupil [cost] is $25,378,” said Jane Littlefield, the Jamestown School Department’s director of finance. “If you add the [238] high school students the per-pupil [cost] is $17,037.”

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser pointed out that the discrepancy effects all of the district-wide calculations, giving Jamestown “disproportionately high numbers” and making accurate comparisons with others impossible.

“It is going to be an ongoing issue for us if it is not corrected in UCOA,” Kaiser said.

Superintendent Marcia Lukon raised the issue during the question-and-answer period of Deborah Gist’s presentation to the town on April 11. Gist, the commissioner of the Department of Education, said that it was the first that she had heard of it and encouraged the superintendent to speak with the commissioner’s team to address the issue.

At last week’s committee meeting, Kaiser acknowledged that Gist was sincere in her expressed surprise during the April 11 presentation to the town but reminded the committee members that Gist’s finance department was well aware of the problem.

According to Kaiser, the state promised to provide a footnote in order to explain the discrepancy, but that has yet to appear on the site.

In an effort to address the problem directly, Kaiser and Lukon drafted a letter for the committee to consider that would be sent to appropriate members of the education department.

“What I am suggesting, if the committee agrees,” Kaiser said, “is that we send a letter asking them — urging them — to override that figure and put in an accurate figure because otherwise there is no point in having transparency if the numbers that are transparent are not correct.”

The committee agreed to send the letter and they agreed that the greatest impact would be achieved if Bruce Keiser, the town administrator, and Michael Schnack, the Jamestown Town Council president, jointly signed the letter, along with Kaiser and Lukon. Lukon added that the issue is much more likely to be addressed if it goes directly to Gist.

The committee also reviewed the North Kingstown tuition contract for the 2011-12 school year that was recently approved by the North Kingstown School Committee.

Kaiser explained that the tuition contract amount is based on a formula using the UCOA costs of the last year plus “a per-pupil share of the district-wide administrative costs.”

Kaiser said that the resulting “general education” tuition is $10,227 per student, which represents a “$479 increase over the current tuition.” She reminded the committee that special education and English language learners programs “are calculated separately based on the respective programs at NKHS.”

Kaiser expressed her gratitude for the work done by parties on either side of the Jamestown Bridge in creating “a mutually agreeable method of revising the tuition formula.”

“The agreement will roll over each year unless notification by either party is given by Nov. 1 to the other party,” Littlefield said. “Each year the tuition will be based on the Uniform Chart of Accounts calculated in the last audited fiscal year.”

Newly appointed school committee member Sav Rebecchi, who filled the vacancy created by Dana Long’s resignation, asked if the extra costs were anticipated in the budget. Kaiser answered, “Yes.” She added that the estimated difference between the budgeted amount and the new figure will land somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000.

The difference represents less thana1percentincreaseinthe budgeted tuition.

Lukon reminded the committee that the number of high schoolers for next year will not be fully known until school starts.

The tuition contract was unanimously approved.

Regarding the recent change in committee membership, Kaiser explained that the Town Council accepted former member Long’s resignation at the April 25 meeting. Her letter of resignation explained that a significant increase in the amount of travel made the resignation necessary. She expressed gratitude for the opportunity.

“I have nothing but pride for how committed our teachers and staff are to providing excellence for students of Jamestown.” Kaiser said. “We are sad to see her go. [She was] a very valuable member of the committee [who was] hard working, did her homework and offered great insight.”

In a seamless transition Kaiser welcomed Rebecchi, who was appointed by the Town Council “as the next highest vote getter in the last election.”

After the meeting Rebecchi said that he’s excited to join the committee and that his immediate goal is to get caught up on the details and “do a good job, work hard and contribute.” Committee member Julia Held read a letter requesting that the General Assembly oppose a bill currently under discussion “that mandate expired teacher contracts must continue the existing terms and conditions.”

Following some discussion a motion in support of the resolution was passed unanimously.

In other business, the preschool tuition rates were approved as unchanged for the third year in a row. Lukon said that districts are mandated by the state to make a preschool program available to families with 3- and 4-year-olds with special needs. According to Lukon, the program does not pay for itself but the difference is budgeted.

The superintendent’s report included a description of the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now. She said that the group is comprised of citizens interested in ensuring that all Rhode Island’s children receive the best education possible.

Lukon also reviewed the commissioner’s presentation and among other points corrected the commissioner’s misinformation regarding the number of special education students in the district. At her April 11 presentation, Gist used 18.5 percent to indicate the percentage of students receiving special services and she suggested that perhaps the district was “over identifying” students with needs.

Lukon said that the inflated number was the result of taking all of the students with special needs in grades K-12 and dividing it by the student count of students only in grades K-8. She said that the correct percentage is 12.5 percent.

The number of lunches sold by Sodexho at both Melrose and Lawn Avenue Schools continues to decline. Committee member Julie Kallfelz reported that she was invited to participate in a discussion about the food service, which included student input. It took place in Mrs. McGuirl’s eighth-grade social studies class as part of an exercise in civics and citizenship. Kallfelz encouraged the students to share their data with the administration, the school committee and Sodexho directly. Kallfelz said that she “laid out all of the considerations” and reminded the students that Sodexho’s contract is up in June. “[The] students were very interested in participating in the decision-making process,” she said.

Lukon encouraged student participation and reminded the group that the students are already “participating in the decision making process by not buying lunch and the totals are the lowest that they have been in three years.”

Kallfelz added that the student steering committee devoted to food service issues has had tremendous success with occasional menu designs “that are wildly successful but expensive.”

The next Jamestown School Committee meeting is today – Thursday, May 5 – at 7 p.m. at Melrose Avenue School.

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