School budget gets cool reception
The Warwick School Committee can expect a lot of questions now that it has approved a $160.6 million budget that represents a $1.3 million increase in spending and asks for another $3.8 million in city funds.
But while the committee can count on many questions, it’s unlikely to see additional city funding based on initial signals from City Hall.
Mayor Scott Avedisian, who going into the school budgeting process says he was told that schools expected to be level funded, was dumbfounded.
“Well that certainly makes me wonder when the superintendent says one thing and the committee goes in a different direction,” he said in an e-mail yesterday.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Mark Carruolo, was equally perplexed.
“Based on all our conversations with them, we expected a level funded budget,” he said yesterday.
As the city recently completed a revaluation and those values will be used in setting the tax rate for the fiscal year starting July 1, it is impossible to calculate how appropriating an additional $3.8 million to schools would impact the rate. However, based on current rates, the added money would require a 40-cent increase in the residential rate, Carruolo said.
Schools are not all the city has to budget for.
Carruolo said the administration is in the throes of budget preparations. Increased spending is being projected for pensions, salary step increases and capital expenditures, including police cruisers, sanitation trucks and reconstruction of the City Hall bell tower. He said the administration plans to get a budget to the City Council by May 14.
As for the school budget, Carruolo said the department appears to be operating on a “rolling” budget. He noted that late last year schools realized they would be running a surplus for the year, so rather than creating a reserve, they amended their current operating budget by adding programs and expenses.
“They decided to pre-spend early savings,” he said.
Carruolo thought that action would weigh heavily on how the mayor and council view the school request.
The mayor was noncommittal.
“All things will be considered as we move forward in the budget process,” he said.
At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, the committee unanimously approved a $160,625,627.24 budget for fiscal year 2014, which is $50,000 higher than the recommended budget presented to the committee for approval.
According to the recommended budget, the school department was expecting a $3,803,408 increase in local support dollars from the city side. That has now increased to $3,853,408.
The budget was amended at the request of Jennifer Ahearn to include the additional $50,000 for a half-time math support teacher at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center.
Ryan Mullen, supervisor of math and science, explained that a number of students involved in the voc-tech program scored 1’s on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test and did not pass. In order to graduate, they must retake the test and score higher than a 1. A NECAP ramp-up course has been set up to assist those students in improving their scores, however, some of those students also need to pass certain math courses and are unable to participate in the ramp-up course. The math support teacher would be brought in to assist those students who are unable to take that course.
“Some kids that got 1’s need to take college-bound math and would miss the NECAP ramp-up,” Mullen said.
Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel for the school department, said the position could be difficult to fill, which is why she would look for a step 5 level teacher, which translates to a $50,000 cost in salary and fringe benefits.
Although several motions were made to increase the budget by other means, the amendment for the math support teacher was the only one to pass.
During department budget presentations, it was revealed that the varsity athletic locker rooms at all three high schools are badly in need of repair. In a list of initiatives not included in the recommended budget, compiled by Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci, refurbishing all locker rooms was listed at a $45,000 cost, so Ahearn moved to amend the budget to add $45,000 to address the locker room situation.
“I believe that if I don’t want to be in the facility and don’t want to shower or spend time there, then I don’t think our kids do either,” Ahearn said.
Before the committee could vote on the amendment, Director of Buildings and Grounds David LaPlante said $45,000 “is nowhere near enough what we would we need to fully refurbish locker rooms at all three schools.”
Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, suggested refurbishing one locker room each year, adding that to do all three at once would involve at least a six-figure number in terms of cost.
“We need to be more comprehensive,” Mullen continued. “For example, if we repaired the lockers but the roof caves in, then that could flake on the lockers.”
LaPlante said his department started with general upgrades and painting of the locker rooms last year, but he said much more work needs to be done, as they are at least 40 to 50 years old.
“They’re in need of locker replacements and shower tile replacements. And if we re-do the showers, then we would also have to make them handicap-accessible, which they weren’t when they were designed initially, so it adds up quick,” he said.
Paul Jansson, assistant director of buildings and grounds, said he visited the locker rooms at Warwick Vets and Pilgrim and estimated it would take at least $500,000 for the main locker room at Vets and $125,000 to $150,000 for the varsity room (a bit more at Pilgrim). He estimated it would cost $375 to $400 per individual locker.
“Doors are falling off, tiles are coming loose … it’s beyond repair,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend fixing the lockers until we fix the roof first; it leaks like a sieve. It’s all part of the capital improvement plan.”
LaPlante explained that there are a number of projects the department planned to address using money from a $25 million bond approved by voters in 2006 but which has not been released by the city, apart from approximately $300,000 to be used to complete work to bring buildings up to fire code slated to take place this summer. Traditionally, the city has paid principal and interest on bond money, but Ferrucci said those payments are coming out of the school department’s operating budget as part of debt service.
School Committee member Karen Bachus suggested tabling the amendment until the Buildings and Grounds Department could look into the issue further and determine exactly what it would take to do the work that is needed.
“Don’t you think the mayor and City Council would be interested in hearing about the condition of the locker rooms for students so they could release the [bond] funds to address the situation?” committee member Eugene Nadeau asked, who was concerned the issue might be tabled for a year.
“We will have to revisit this budget and readdress the situation once it’s passed because we don’t know how much money we’ll get from the city,” said Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado.
The motion was tabled.
Next, Nadeau made a motion to add $69,000 into the music department budget, $23,000 for each high school, for the express purpose of being used to tune and upgrade instruments.
“We’ve been to the concerts and we’ve been blessed with musical talent in our programs, but the instruments need tuning,” Nadeau said. “We have instruments in the orchestra and instruments in use that cost $2,000 to $3,000 that have never been tuned.”
Although Dr. Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum and supervisor for music and art, was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, it was revealed during her budget presentation that she increased her equipment non-technical line item by $62,000, with the intention of that money being used to tune and upgrade instruments as far as it would go. Over the past few years, that line item had been budgeted at $7,000 to $8,000 but was increased to $69,000 in the current budget.
“Two years ago, Gene and I fought to get that extra money for them [music department] and I’m glad to see Dr. Siesel included that, but I think we need to look at and consider other departments because we’re educating the whole child,” said committee member Terri Medeiros.
Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino added that the department has purchased five electronic pianos and has plans to move further in that direction to eliminate the need for tuning such instruments.
“Instructors have also assisted students in tuning other instruments,” he said.
The motion failed by a 3-2 vote.
Ahearn made another motion to add a K-12 science supervisor. Presently, Ryan Mullen, the math and science supervisor, handles those duties even though is background is rooted in mathematics and is less familiar with the science realm.
“There’s a learning curve with regard to the science portion,” he said.
“I completely believe that it’s a very overwhelming task for the director [Mullen] to coordinate material for secondary and elementary for math and science,” Ahearn said.
“We have science kits in the elementary schools and department heads at the secondary level; I’m not sure we need another administrative position right now,” Medeiros said.
“With all due respect, we should move to put department heads back into the junior highs before we put someone into science,” Bachus said, which was greeted with audience applause. “We have other issues to address, such as reading.”
That motion also failed by a 3-2 vote.
In other committee action, a resolution supporting same-sex marriage was passed. Bachus explained the intention of the resolution was to join in support with the City Council, which passed the same resolution April 8, “in letting people know this is a safe place, the city is a safe place, kids are safe here, and to prevent any bullying that goes on.”
Although the resolution passed, it was amended, at the request of Nadeau, to strike language at the end that would have the decision on legalizing same-sex marriage made by the General Assembly, and to instead put the matter before the voters.
“I want to vote ‘yes’ on this,” he said. “I agree with everything in the resolution, but the only reason I will not vote for it is if it does not go before the public for a vote.”
Nadeau’s amendment was approved 4-1, with Bachus abstaining.
Before adjourning the meeting, it was announced that two public hearings on the closure of a junior high school will be held at Warwick Veterans High School, 2401 West Shore Road, Warwick, in the coming weeks. The first will be on Thursday, May 2 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and the second will be on Tuesday, May 7 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Following the hearings, a vote on school closure will be held at Warwick Vets on Thursday, May 9 at 6 p.m.