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City schools balance budget

December 15, 2011

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to a production error, an article from a previous School Committee meeting inadvertently ran in Friday's Times and on this web site. The following is the correct article from the School Committee meeting of Dec. 13.

PAWTUCKET — Thanks to various cost-cutting measures, including bringing back special education students from outplacement services, and concessions from the teachers' union, the School Department was able to achieve a balanced budget for the current fiscal year.
At Tuesday night's School Committee meeting, school officials noted that this was no small feat, as the budget was projected to have a deficit of $7.3 million last April. However, Schools Business Manager Thomas Conlon said that in the final analysis, the School Department's expenditures were decreased by $5.9 million and its revenues increased by $1.4 million, which essentially erased the $7.3 million shortfall.
The school board voted to accept Conlon's adjusted FY12 budget document, which details the approximately $92.7 million used to operate the school district. This “official” budget will remain in place until June 30, when the current fiscal year ends. He added that he had met with state officials about the FY12 spending plan and said “they are very happy with our budget,” particularly in light of some of the financial struggles being faced by several other Rhode Island communities.
Conlon added that another piece of good financial news is that with the recent pension reform, the School Department's obligation will decrease next year by $740,000, as opposed to an increase of about $3.5 million that had been anticipated before the pension reform. He also told the School Committee that a required independent audit of the budget is expected to be completed by Dec. 3.
Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke praised Conlon and others for “a good job” with the budget. She also noted the cooperation of the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance in re-opening the teachers' contract to provide a substantial savings by foregoing a raise, and said other significant deficit reductions had been realized through bringing more special education outplacement services back in-house, and by tapping into some medical reserves funds.
However, Cylke also noted that work on developing the FY13 budget will begin in January and said that there are several expense areas that will require “a close watch.” She added, however, that she, along with Mayor Donald Grebien and acting Director of Administration Antonio Pires would soon be meeting with the state Department of Revenue as part of the continued monitoring of the city's budget situation, and that she is pleased to be able to say that the school budget is back on track.
Later, Conlon told the Times that the biggest portion of the savings—over $3.5 million--came from the teachers' union's willingness to waive a 3 percent raise and accepting an increase in their health insurance co-pay from 6 percent to 9 percent. He also said that there were 11 fewer full-time teachers or teacher equivalents (stemming from lay-offs), resulting in an adjustment of $3.6 million in the budget, and another $200,000 that was saved though lay-offs and consolidations of non-teaching personnel.
Conlon added that $1.5 million was saved by returning some special education students to classrooms and programs in the city schools. Other savings were achieved by trimming overtime costs by $145,000, and by spending $52,000 less in bus transportation and $20,000 less in legal fees.
Conlon added that while the school budget is required to be presented to the City Council by April 30 of each year, he noted that there are many unknown factors that can't be finalized until the school year gets underway in the fall. Student enrollment and the need for special education services, in particular, can greatly impact the budget from year to year, he said. As such, he said that since 2006, he has officially adjusted the budget document each fall and then presented it to the School Committee for final approval.
In another matter, Cylke told the School Committee that last Friday, she submitted to state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist her request to use the “transformation model” in the effort to improve the graduation rate at Tolman and Shea High Schools. She said that Gist has 10 days in which to respond with approval or disapproval of the model, after which time, she has 120 days to come up with an improvement plan, guided by input from a school improvement team. She added that she is also seeking more volunteers in the way of teachers, parents, students and other members of the community to give the improvement committee a wider representation.
Cylke also told the School Committee that she is ready to seek requests for proposals (RFPs) for the second phase of the renovation and construction improvements of many of the city's schools that were recommended in a study done last year. She noted that while the state currently has a moratorium on reimbursements for school construction projects, exceptions can be made when there are health and safety issues. “And we have a number of them in Pawtucket,” she added.
Cylke said the second stage of the construction plan involves an assessment of the health and safety issues in the schools and having architects come up with the specifications that would be used in any school improvements and/or redesigns. She added that she would establish some focus groups at each of the schools to give input to the architects as they outline the design specifications.


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