Town, school board open budget talks
The School Committee and Town Council met Monday night to discuss education spending in advance of budget season.
Cathy Kaiser, chairwoman of the school board, said the joint session was a pre-budget meeting – required by law – to give the town councilors a sense of any “obstacles” that the committee is aware of. The meeting was also for the council to give the School Committee feedback on where the town stands and what budget numbers it would like the School Committee to meet.
At this point, Kaiser said, the School Department has not prepared the budget and does not have hard numbers to present.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said in the past few years, both the municipal government and the schools have presented “limited budget requests” that increased spending by about 2 percent.
He added that in the past the town has been able to stay “well within” the state cap that limits annual property-tax increases.
In Jamestown, the cap would mean limiting new spending to $734,000, he said.
“The School Committee looks to the Town Council for some direction,” he said. Keiser told the new councilors that they should let educators know their “general policy” on spending.
Keiser wondered if the council expected the School Department to try for a “zero percent” budget increase again, as they have in the current fiscal year.
“Or do they have some latitude?” he asked.
But when the session ended, the councilors had not answered the “latitude” question and said they were unable to provide any direction for the education leaders, as Town Council Vice President Mary Meagher put it.
“I’m not sure we are able to give you any advice,” she said.
“How about, ‘Keep up the good work?’” School Committee member B.J. Whitehouse shot back.
Superintendent Marcia Lukon told the council the schools face financial challenges next year over funding health benefits and teacher retirement contributions. Because of this, she said, the department may need some “latitude” about education funding.
When Town Council President Kristine Trocki asked specifically how much latitude the schools would want, Lukon replied, “4 percent.”
However, she added, the staff would make every effort to bring in a lower budget.
“It’s safe to say we don’t want you to take all the $734,000 that’s allowed,” Meagher said.
In any case, Keiser said, the schools would only be entitled to 60 percent of the $734,000, since the school and town sides use a 60-40 split.
Lukon spent most of her presentation explaining how the schools used zero-based budgeting to set priorities and then build the budget around the goals. Over the past four years, the school operating budget has increased only 1.52 percent.
“So this process is working for us,” she said. She also went over the main costs that drive the budget, such as union salaries and benefi ts; tuitions for North Kingstown High, charter schools and special education placements; transportation; and other expenses.
Councilor Eugene Mihaly asked how much of the annual spending package is “discretionary.”
Lukon replied the amount is small, and Kaiser said she objected to the term “discretionary.”
Whitehouse said school leaders have been “as responsible as possible” about building the budget, but added their job is to educate the children.
He described the School Department’s efforts to control spending as “incredible due diligence.”
However, a few sparks flew when Councilor Blake Dickinson complained about recent standardized test scores in science.
“We keep dumping money,” Dickinson said, “and we need to see something that’s qualitatively measurable.”
He went on to suggest the school leaders would need to find a solution if scores keep going in wrong direction.
Whitehouse objected to the word “dumping.”
“What does dumping money mean?” he asked. “We’re funding education.”
Dickinson replied to say the schools weren’t producing the expected results and were performing in an “inverse relationship with the amount of money the town is spending.”
Whitehouse called Dickinson’s premise “a very narrow view of assessing education.” He insisted the public’s money is being invested incredibly wisely in education, but refused to tie funding to test results.
“Hopefully, these scores will rise,” Whitehouse said, but added the schools are going to create an educated student body.
“I take great umbrage at ‘dumping money,’” he said.
Kaiser also challenged Dickinson’s comments.
“I’d also quarrel with your statement the trend is down,” she said, adding that over the past five years, test scores have improved and the trend is actually up.
“You’re looking at one headline,” she said. Kaiser also said test scores are never the best way to measure student achievement.
Lukon said Jamestown’s test scores could be skewed due to the small student population. A 6 percent swing in the scores can represent “two kids who answered one more or one less question.”
Nonetheless, she said, the educators analyze the test scores to determine why the students underperformed.
“Is this a curriculum issue?” Lukon asked. “Did we teach the children about this topic, or is there a hole in our curriculum and we didn’t have a unit on it?”