2012-02-23 / Front Page

School board OKs $12 million budget

Taxpayers ask for budget posted online, also wants teachers’ salaries released
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

The School Committee has approved a $12.1 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The vote was unanimous and uneventful, but a debate between Taxpayers Association of Jamestown member Jerome Scott and the School Committee heated up after the panel had adjourned its Feb. 16 meeting.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser had just thanked the association members for attending and invited them to future meetings, when a debate was sparked over a final question about making the budget numbers available on an online spreadsheet instead of a PDF.

After School Committee members said that they did not study individual teacher compensation packages, Scott was curious to know how the members could understand the budget if they didn’t examine it.

“I have a level of trust,” said committee member Julie Held. “I don’t need to know that information.”

“Then it’s a matter of understanding the contract,” Scott replied.

Scott explained that he wanted the spreadsheet so he could analyze individual teachers’ salaries, plus health and retirement benefi ts. Using the teacher’s contract, he could then project trends in the town’s liability.

Scott said he had been taken by surprise to hear taxpayers face $13 million in “debt” for benefits of 26 retired teachers. That number had not appeared anywhere in previous budgets, he said.

Kaiser objected, arguing the $13 million is not debt, but unfunded liability. Moreover, that number is now part of the budget, although she conceded that in the past the unfunded liability had not shown up on the spreadsheets.

She added that she is not comfortable with making the school’s budget available online. Kaiser said she’s concerned people could manipulate the numbers and misrepresent the School Committee’s work. Kaiser made it clear that she wasn’t accusing Scott. “I’m not saying you would do this, Jerry,” she said.

Kaiser also questioned if the School Committee has the right to release information about individual teacher salaries.

B.J. Whitehouse, member of the School Committee, said he was also unsure if releasing individual teacher salaries would violate privacy laws. He asked Scott to give the panel time to find out and asked Superintendent Marcia Lukon to research the question. If the salaries are public information, Whitehouse said, he will make sure Scott receives the data.

The new package on school spending reflects the combined $11,946,700 operating budget and the $192,175 capital budget. The town’s general fund will contribute $11,429,936, which represents a 2 percent increase over the current year’s budget, according to Whitehouse.

Over an email exchange, the taxpayers association had questioned why the School Committee had not aimed to reduce spending by, for example, 5 percent.

Jane Littlefield, the school department’s director of finance, said the schools use zero-based budgeting. They build the budget based on the number of pupils and their educational needs.

“We don’t put percentages on any line randomly,” she said.

Committee member Sav Rebecchi added that he had looked into the reasons why the panel did not set a goal to reduce the budget. One consideration, he said, is a state law, dubbed maintenance of effort, which makes it illegal for communities to cut the annual contribution to the schools.

However, Lukon said some exceptions, such as declining enrollment, would allow a city or town to reduce school spending. One year Jamestown did reduce its contribution legally per state law, Lukon said.

In other business, the School Committee heard a report about financial problems affecting North Kingstown High School. Held, liaison to the North Kingstown School Committee, said the talk about money woes had been overblown. In reality, the situation is not so dire as previously stated. But tensions between North Kingstown town and school leaders continue, and an argument is ongoing about whether the North Kingstown Town Council should have full authority over school expenditures, Held said.

Going on to explain the situation, Held said North Kingstown officials have filed a lawsuit to take over the authority for school spending because the district is in a deficit. However, the schools say the deficit is only on paper, she said.

Controversy is also brewing over a new high school certificate. State educators are mulling the option to award certificates to some disabled students who fail the standardized tests now required for graduation. Many disabled students do pass the New England Common Assessment Program standardized tests, which are a graduation requirement. But the severely disabled youngsters typically do not take the test. They must leave high school without a diploma if they cannot satisfy the NECAP requirement.

Discussions about the certificate are “in initial stages,” Rebecchi said. But at a recent meeting about the certificates, all the parents opposed the certificates.

“They felt it would be a scarlet letter,” Rebecchi said.

On another front, a new state law is being proposed to overturn the NECAP graduation requirement, Kaiser said. State Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist wants to keep the NECAP requirement and opposes the new bill, Kaiser said.

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