2013-12-19 / News

Budget talks begin

By Margo Sullivan

Higher costs for health insurance and salary increases due to upcoming teacher negotiations are two of the “major unknowns” that could take a bite out of the School Department’s budget, Superintendent Marcia Lukon said Monday.

But so far this year, department revenues are up and costs are down, according to School Finance Director Jane Littlefield. Asked to ballpark the numbers, Littlefield estimated the department’s reserve fund has grown by about $200,000.

The School Committee and Town Council held their annual joint workshop on Dec. 16 to discuss the upcoming budget. All five councilors and Town Administrator Kevin Paicos were present along with Lukon, Littlefield and four members of the school board. Committeeman B.J. Whitehouse did not attend.

“I’m trying to understand how much was added to the reserve fund,” Councilor Blake Dickinson said.

Littlefield summarized the current year’s financial picture by saying the reserve fund is at about $2.3 million.

“It did grow last year,” she said. “Preschool revenue was up a bit.”

Littlefield said the schools also saw increases in revenues for Medicare and transportation.

“Any opportunity we have to save money,” Lukon said, “we do.”

“It came to a positive couple hundred thousand?” Councilor Eugene Mihaly asked. Littlefield confirmed the estimate was probably right.

“We’ll have our final numbers in a couple of weeks,” Finance Director Tina Collins said.

The councilors and School Committee met to go over any budget issues that had emerged in the current fiscal year. They also began planning for the new fiscal year that starts July 1, 2014.

Lukon said the new school budget can’t be compared to the past year’s spending package for several reasons – primarily because the educational goals are changing.

The schools are in the midst of “comprehensive educational reform” with “massive” changes, Lukon said. In her opinion, the changes are positive and will better prepare the kids for the future.

“But they’re rapid,” she said.

Maybe too rapid, Lukon added. The state of Rhode Island was awarded a grant for its participation in Race to the Top, a federal contest that awards states and school districts for academic performance.

The result was Rhode Island schools were put on fast track, she said. At this point, however, the Jamestown schools are keeping pace with the change.

“We’re in very good shape,” she said. “We’ve been working on these. They’re all coming together.”

The students will be expected to perform at a higher standard than in the past, Lukon indicated. For one example, the new eighthgrade reading tests will require the children to read two levels higher than the current standard set by the New England Comprehensive Assessment Program.

One consequence is that the school’s spending plan “can’t be a stagnant budget,” Lukon said. The staff starts the budget preparations by discussing how the schools are going to improve in the future and how to accomplish the goals.

“That may mean changes in staffing, changes in programs, instructional materials,” Lukon said.

The School Department will always try to offset any cost increases, she added.

“As we’re increasing in one area, we’re attempting to decrease in another.”

According to Lukon, zero-based budgeting has helped rein in expenses. Every budget season, the staff has discussions about what it needs to accomplish in the upcoming school year.

“Where are we going and what budget will we need. We’re about results.”

The pressures on the budget start with salaries, benefits and contract obligations, she indicated, using a printed handout to illustrate the points. This year, the School Committee will have to negotiate a new contract with the teachers union, and the results of those talks are one of the budget unknowns.

Other costs stem from government mandates, and there is uncertainty over how much state and federal aid Jamestown will receive.

Dickinson asked if the aid at least covers the cost of the mandates. Lukon said when the requirements for special education were first established, the government promised more than it has ever delivered.

Asked if the combined state and federal aid came to about 3 percent of the School Department budget, Littlefield said the figure was less than that. Jamestown’s school budget this year is $11.6 million.

Also a factor, she said, is uncertainty about the number of military families coming to Jamestown with children who will attend the schools. On average, the number has been 100 children every year, but enrollments have been increasing slightly.

If the children attend the elementary or middle school, they may have minimal impact on the budget, but high-school students cost the district more because Jamestown does not have its own high school and pays tuition for older students. Furthermore, if the youngsters require special education or other programs, such as English as a second language, costs go higher and Jamestown is required to provide those services.

The transportation costs are another major cost, Lukon indicated, especially if the transportation is for special-education students being sent out of district.

Finally, costs to operate the school buildings represent another major expense.

Lukon said the teachers’ contract will expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2014. The outcome of the contract negotiations is among the “other major unknowns” that could impact the budget, along with the amount of state and federal aid Jamestown will collect, and the higher costs for health-insurance premiums the schools will have to pay.

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