2013-09-26 / Front Page

School board sets policy for OPEB funding

Panel agrees to put aside $1.5 million from surplus
By Nick Pereira

The School Committee last week approved a new policy for funding other post-employment benefits for the district’s employees. The proposed policy has been online since the committee first introduced the plan at its August meeting. The subsequent vote on Sept. 19 was unanimous.

Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser read an excerpt of the policy on Aug. 22. “Given the current uncertainty about the impact of universal health care upon future medical benefit costs and thus OPEB liabilities, the School Committee deems it imprudent at this time to commit funds to an irrevocable trust, and elects instead to designate a portion of the School Department’s unreserved fund as a restricted account intended for OPEB funding.”

The policy has been available to the public for about a month, and not much has changed between the two readings. Most notably, an auditor suggested terminology revisions. Among them, “unreserved fund” was changed to “the restricted school fund balance,” and “restricted account” was revised to read “committed account.”

Moments after the vote, the School Committee passed another motion to set aside money to help pay other post-employment benefits. The set-aside was possible because of a budget surplus created by controlled spending over the years.

According to Finance Director Jane Littlefield, the balance of the restricted school fund as of June 30, 2012, was $2,263,816. Of that figure, just under $400,000 is committed for capital projects and compensated absences. Although the School Department won’t know its current financial standing until the fiscal year 2013 numbers are released in January, Littlefield expected more money will be added to the surplus due to increased revenues and reduced spending.

Littlefield recommended setting aside $1.5 million of the restricted school fund – formerly the unreserved fund – in an OPEB account. Following the committee’s unanimous vote to set aside $1.5 million, the district’s liability for other post-employment benefits is now 23 percent funded, which dwarfs most every other city or town in the state. One exception is Westerly, which Kaiser commended. Westerly has been the most aggressive municipality when it comes to setting aside money for other post-retirement benefits. Currently, the city has $14 million stashed away and its OPEB liability is 57 percent funded.

“Thank you for being so careful with your expenditures that we could fund this,” said Committeewoman Julia Held. She directed her comments to several school leaders, including Superintendent Marcia Lukon. Committee member B.J. Whitehouse also noted that a forward-looking maintenance plan prevented the need to spend large sums on building projects.

In other news, the School Committee appointed a negotiating subcommittee to work with the teachers union. At this time there are no talks pending. However, that is not unusual at this time of year.

“We haven’t been contacted but that usually happens in October,” said Kaiser.

The committee members appointed the subpanel so negotiations can begin as soon as possible in order to avoid conflicts with the upcoming budget season, which typically begins in the new year.

Whitehouse is barred from serving on the subcommittee because of a conflict of interest. He is a teacher and a union member in Little Compton. Kaiser and Committeewoman Sarah Baines will represent the school board in the negotiations. They both volunteered for the post.

Also, Lukon was joined by Held, liaison to the North Kingstown School Committee, earlier this week when a team from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges visited North Kingstown High. North Kingstown hopes to be given full accreditation. Lukon also attended a workshop by the state Education Department on interim assessment. She was joined by Melrose School Principal Carrie Melucci and Curriculum Director Kathy Almanzor. The administrative team learned about the anticipated transition to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.

Lastly, the School Committee held a brief discussion about a new standardized testing regime to begin next year.

“We’re feeling good about what we are doing to get ready,” said Lukon.

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