2014-03-27 / Front Page

Council asks school board to trim costs

Taxpayers would be on hook for $11.2 million
By Margo Sullivan

The Town Council at last week’s budget workshop asked the school department to scour its spending plan for places to cut costs.

“Everyone sharpen their pencils,” said Council President Kristine Trocki after the councilors and school board reviewed the spending package at a joint meeting on March 20.

Superintendent Marcia Lukon and business manager Jane Littlefield went over the assumptions that the administration had made when it projected next year’s costs and revenues. During a slideshow presentation, Lukon explained the School Committee has approved $11.8 million for the district’s operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1. Moreover, the schools are asking for $120,000 in capital spending.

Among the expectations, Lukon listed health and dental insurance costs up by 10 and 5 percent, respectively, and heating oil costs at $3.50 per gallon. She figured the same number of military students next year as this year, but added 2 percent to the costs for out-ofdistrict special-education tuitions.

Expenses for statewide transportation are expected to go up by 4 percent, she said. But Lukon allowed the estimate was based on keeping the same bus routes, and it could change if the percentage of Jamestown students aboard declined.

The other assumptions called for an additional day per week for the speech pathologist, eliminat- ing a behavior specialist, and adding a technical support specialist to maintain computers and other technology.

Overall, Lukon said, the operating budget would increase by $246,810, which represents a 2.12 percent increase.

“However, that isn’t what it would mean to the town,” she said. Lukon explained the town would appropriate only $11.2 million in taxes for the schools due to projected revenue increases from state and federal aid. Compared to last year’s spending, the town’s contribution would go up by $177,401, an increase of 1.6 percent.

Some savings could be found as early as this week. Lukon and Littlefield said they were expecting to hear from Blue Cross Blue Shield about the district’s actual health insurance costs. The schools budgeted for a 10 percent increase in health insurance, Lukon said.

However, Finance Director Tina Collins said Blue Cross has “strongly indicated” the health costs will be going down, not up.

“So that’s another reduction,” Littlefield said, adding that other numbers are also not definite, such as the tuitions for North Kingstown High, where most Jamestown teens continue their education.

Littlefield said she cannot say for sure how many students will opt to attend North Kingstown, since some eighth-graders will continue their education at private or parochial schools. Furthermore, some may elect to attend The Met School for career technical education. She used 169 as the number in the enrollment projections. She only budgeted for 162, however, based on her best information about the future plans of students.

The school department is also certain the North Kingstown tuitions will be going up, but the charges have not yet been announced, Littlefield said.

Councilor Blake Dickinson asked if the schools could calculate how much they should spend based on the number of students. He also wanted to assess the surplus the schools realized every year and were transferring into the district’s unreserved fund.

“A number of something times a unit of something gives me a reasonable basis,” he said.

School enrollments for next year are projected to decline again, Lukon said. She presented a chart showing a total of 657 students expected in the fall, compared to 662 this year, 670 in 2012 and 692 in 2011.

But Lukon said the school district’s expenses are based on the number of programs the school must provide and not the number of students. The exception is North Kingstown High since the tuition Jamestown pays is based on enrollment.

“That is by student,” she said. “It’s a price tag we get charged.”

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser asked if Dickinson really meant to question why the school department has banked a budget surplus every year.

Dickinson acknowledged the surplus issue seems obvious, but wanted to know what would make this year different.

“Every year you’re budgeting for unknowns,” Kaiser replied.

According to Kaiser, the budget is based on the known facts as of the current moment, but “does not do away with any unknowns.” She said school officials cannot possibly anticipate every contingency. Historically, she said, the district’s actual surplus has been between $200,000 and $300,000 annually, and the money has been reinvested in capital improvements.

“We’re the only school district in the state that comes in at less than they got the previous year,” she said.

Kaiser did not think it would be prudent to cut the request too close to the bone and leave nothing for contingencies.

“Think about the town budget,” she said. Kaiser pointed out that the municipal government should have had a surplus this year, but did not because of higher-than-expected costs for two construction projects.

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