School Department proposes a nearly flat budget
Jamestown’s School Department last week unveiled a fiscal year 2012-13 budget which proposes to keep total spending at nearly the same level as that of its current budget.
The spending plan was presented to the Town Council by Superintendent Marcia Lukon, who warned that there are still signifi cant uncertainties about the department’s financial support from the state.
The council held its budget work session with the School Committee on April 12. Lukon proposed a budget of $11,923,787, which would increase School Department funding by $101,034.
Much of the increase, which is only 0.85 percent more than the department’s fiscal year 2011-12 budget, is intended to fund the addition of a single staff position. But the superintendent pointed out that even this modest increase had to be weighed against the realities of state funding assistance.
Jamestown’s property taxes fund around 95 percent of the department’s budget, with the remaining 5 percent funded by state and federal assistance. But the state, Lukon said, “plays a shell game” with the aid to school districts.
School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser told the Press that an example of this shell game arose when the schools were supposed to receive $89,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. The state responded by eliminating from its own school grants an amount of money equal to the federal assistance allocated to Rhode Island schools.
The state then “told us that the [federal] money wasn’t intended to supplant the state money,” Kaiser said. “It was intended to supplement our funding – to enrich our programs. So, we and all the districts had to figure out a way to use the ARRA money in ways that would help support our operating budgets without supplanting any of the funding that the state eliminated. It really complicated things.”
Off-island tuition expenditures are another annual uncertainty. During the next fiscal year, the School Department expects to pay North Kingstown $2.25 million in tuition for 183 high school students. Other off-island tuitions are projected as $417,458 for eight special-needs students and $77,400 for six charter-school students. Total off-island tuitions, which account for 23.2 percent of the budget, are expected to be $25,968 less than their total for the current fiscal year.
Currently, there are 14 students from military families in Jamestown schools. A military parent told the councilors and committee members that the School Department should demand more military assistance to help teachers adjust to the “40 percent turnover” in military students, although she didn’t explain why adjustment to those particular kids was any different from the adjustments to students from nonmilitary families.
She presented her lengthy remarks after learning that the department plans to add a curriculum development director at a salary of $74,000 a year. The addition of this position “in a time of austerity,” the parent argued, supports a request for military funding assistance with the turnover “burden.”
Lukon said the department has “made inquiries” about additional military assistance, beyond which “there isn’t much we can do.” She also pointed out that the position of curriculum director is budgeted as half a full-time job because a similar position already existed as a part-time job.
The department decided that the position had to become a full-time job because Rhode Island is one of the states that has signed up for the federal Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment standards, which means, all the curricula have to be revamped. “The lessons, the thrust of the lessons, and all the things that won’t be part of the new test,” Kaiser said.
“It’s a humongous job,” she added, “and we are trying to share some of the work by coordinating with some other districts on portions of the curricula. As [resident Blake Dickinson] said, ‘Why don’t you share the work?’ Well, we are doing some of that already.”
In his comments to the council and the committee, Dickinson also raised questions about the School Department’s unfunded pension liabilities. Currently, estimates of the benefits that the department will eventually owe retirees ranges from $12 million to $14 million. Dickinson asked why the obligation to fund those benefits isn’t included in the budget now that government employers are required by a newly adopted accounting standard (GASB 45) to quantify and report postretirement liabilities.
Kaiser said that those contributions will be formally listed in future spending plans, adding that the School Department “has been setting aside money for the liabilities as we’ve gone along. We have a plan to start funding the liabilities out of our reserve fund, and we’ll start doing that when the Interlocal Trust offers the postemployment trust fund they’re planning for municipalities, and we’re waiting on that. So, it’s not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs.”
Dickinson also raised a flag over the ratio of property-tax dollars to individual students. Jamestown, Kaiser told the councilors, has the state’s sixth highest ratio of dollars to students, and that’s largely because the town is unable to spread those costs among the larger student populations in most other school districts. Absent the economies of scale enjoyed by those other districts, it’s not entirely surprising that Jamestown is well up in this ranking, but Kaiser disputed Dickinson’s assertion that the department should lower the ratio by reducing its overhead expenditures “like a business would.”
Kaiser told Dickinson that comparing a School Department to a business wasn’t fair.
“We are already operating with a bare-bones staff,” she said.