2014-03-06 / Front Page

School board proposes $12.4M budget

Spending plan calls for 2.4 percent hike over last year
By Margo Sullivan

Taxpayers will be asked to spend a little more on schools in the new fiscal year that starts July 1, the School Committee decided at its Feb. 27 meeting.

The board voted unanimously to approve the new budget of $12,418,882. The town’s contribution will be $11,258,388.

The total spending package represents an increase of 2.41 percent over the current year, according to Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser.

The School Committee and Town Council will meet March 20 to go over the budget request before sending a recommendation to voters at the annual financial town meeting in June.

Before the vote, committee members asked some final questions about the budget, including clarification about the amount the town will be asked to contribute.

Jane Littlefield, the district’s business manager, verified the town appropriation comes to $11,258,388. The sum represents an increase of 1.6 percent over last year.

The other questions dealt with the English language learner position; increases in the advertising budget; additional spending for the business office; and costs for longterm substitute teachers.

In regard to an English language learner, the district doesn’t pay for a full-time teacher, but there is money set aside for a partial position based on the number of eligible students. According to Littlefield, Jamestown had five eligible students this year and projects three next year. She anticipates the teaching load will not quite be enough to warrant a full-time teacher, so the position is budgeted at 0.8.

Held asked if the schools would have to increase to a full-time instructor next year.

Littlefield said it depends on whether the students are placed in the entry-level group. Per the state Department of Education, entrylevel children need three periods of ELL instruction daily. With two students, the teacher would “be doing six periods per day, which is almost a full load,” she said.

Littlefield said she would double check to see if the projections called for revising the line item upward.

Also, she explained why the department’s advertising budget is increasing over last year’s costs. One uptick is due to a $1,000 increase in the cost of School Spring, a website the schools use as a bulletin board for help wanted. In addition, the department plans to advertise for prekindergarten and kindergarten registrations.

Held said the year-to-date numbers appeared to be on target, but Littlefield said the bus contract is coming up next year and advertising for bids will have a budget impact.

In addition, the School Committee members wanted to know why the support line increased for the business office. Littlefield said the reason was due to the purchase of new software that the auditor suggested to better track depreciation.

“We added six assets last year,” she said.

Finally, on costs for long-term substitutes, Littlefield said the projections are guesses because the long-term people are hired when a teacher “needs to be out for an extended period where we don’t normally know about it.” Since 2011, the schools have allowed $87,600 for long-term substitutes, but the actual expenditures have varied.

“We could be $40,000 in the hole one year, and $15,000 up in another,” she said. “We never know.”

However, Littlefield said a deficit in this line item usually is “a wash” because the teacher on leave is not collecting a salary. Her practice has been to set aside $87,600 in the line item for longterm substitutes and “keep an eye on it.” This year, for example, the department has spent $29,000 for long-term substitutes.

“It’s really just a number we cannot project,” she said.

Before taking the budget vote, the committee also considered a question about raising pay for substitute teachers. The request was in response to substitute teacher Lisa Tuttle’s 2013 request that the board review the rates.

Littlefield recommended not changing the budget at this juncture, even if the committee opted to raise the pay, because the substitute teacher expenses are unpredictable.

“We never know from year to year,” she said.

Ultimately, the committee decided not to raise any of the substitute teacher rates.

Kaiser said the Jamestown schools are competitive at the current rate but acknowledged it is based on a comparison with other school departments in South County, and not on the rates statewide.

Committeeman B.J. Whitehouse asked for more information and wanted to know if the school principals were experiencing problems finding qualified substitute teachers.

“It’s the worst job on Earth,” Whitehouse said, but added he would go along with keeping the pay at the same rate. “As long as we’re competitive and have a good pool of subs.”

Melrose School Principal Carrie Melucci said she was satisfied with the quality of the substitutes.

Committeewoman Julia Held said she was not happy about keeping the same rate but would go along with her colleagues since the consensus seemed to be the schools had no problems finding qualified substitutes.

Compared to the pay rates in other school districts, the Jamestown substitutes are compensated in the middle range, said Committeewoman Sarah Baines.

Kaiser noted Providence and cities and towns in northern Rhode Island do pay higher rates.

“But look at South County,” Kaiser said. “We’re comparable.”

If Jamestown goes up, she added, the town is putting pressure on neighboring communities to raise their pay.

Whitehouse noted that substitutes qualified for the higher longterm rate if they worked 30 days over the course of the school year. Moreover, the 30 days do not have to be worked consecutively.

In a related matter, the committee also decided not to raise the rate for retirees who returned to school as substitutes. They are paid more than other substitutes, but currently the Jamestown schools only have one retiree working as a sub.

Baines speculated a better rate would attract more retired teachers, but Littlefield said she was doubtful money would be an incentive. The teachers spend 30 years in the classroom before they qualify for retirement benefits, she said.

“When they retire, they’re ready to retire,” she said.

Kaiser said it seemed there is “no pressing need” to raise the rate. Whitehouse said he’d like to be kept informed about the situation in case there’s a need to revisit the question.

In other business, the committee decided not to raise the preschool rates.

Also, Superintendent Marcia Lukon reported she testified on Smith Hill last week about a number of education bills that the state legislature is mulling.

“With very short notice, I found out about a number of education bills being filed and being heard yesterday,” she said. “I felt the need to be there and contribute testimony.”

Lukon and Kaiser attended the hearings.

“We were sitting in the overflow room and trying to watch the testimony on a TV you could barely hear,” she said.

One of the bills concerned teacher evaluation.

“I testified against that,” Lukon said.

The bill would limit the administration’s ability to evaluate the staff. Specifically, the department would only be allowed to schedule evaluations at proscribed intervals.

The bill was “distressing” to Lukon because it proposed putting off assessment based on the Common Core curriculum in favor or forming “a big panel to study everything and give recommendations.”

The panel would be partly appointed by the governor and the unions.

“We shouldn’t put it off anymore,” Lukon said.

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