PAWTUCKET — Due to some further spending cuts, including a reduction in staffing at the administrative level—and an optimistic gamble in the amount needed for medical reserves in the coming year—school administrators managed to achieve a balanced budget for fiscal year 2012.
The School Committee voted to approve the $91.3 million spending plan at its June 14 meeting. By state statute, the School Department is required to have a balanced budget in place by June 30, which is the start of the new fiscal year.
Getting to a balanced budget was no easy feat, as school officials began the process with a projected deficit of $7.8 million deficit. Cost cutting and significant concessions from the teachers' union totaling $4.9 million pared the deficit down to $2.3 million in late April. Earlier this month, it was announced that the schools would be receiving $1.1 million in state literacy funds that were formerly restricted but could now be used to balance the budget. This brought the figure down to a more manageable $1.2 million.
Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke said that slashing the remainder of the deficit was achieved by identifying another batch of cuts totaling $452,000 and taking another $754,000 out of an account that is saved for medical reserves for school department employees. The School Committee unanimously approved the cuts and also agreed with the plan to use the medical reserves money to balance the budget.
Included among the cost-cutting is a seven-person reduction in administrative staffing, which includes five non-union clerical positions, one teaching assistant and a custodian. Cylke called the lay-offs “painful,” but said the actions allowed the School Committee to not have to seek concessions from the non-certified employees' union, whose members are among the lower paid School Department employees and who have not had a salary increase in a couple of years.
“In my 33 years in education, this has been the most challenging budget I've ever had to deal with,” said Cylke, who was formerly a superintendent in a much larger school district in Reno, Nevada. She said that reaching a balanced spending plan required a combination of actions that impact all of the employee groups. “We tried to have some equity to the loss, but it was a painstaking process,” she added.
Cylke and other school officials say that the cuts that were made to balance the budget are far from ideal in regard to educating the city's 800-plus students. To that end, they are still hoping that the city will eventually restore the 1.3 million that was cut last year when it was allowed to fund to 95 percent “maintenance of effort” rather than 100 percent. However, Cylke said that after state Department of Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly made it clear to city officials earlier this year that they needed to get Pawtucket's finances in order or be open to state oversight, it was clear that decisive actions had to be taken.
Having attended numerous budget meetings and workshops with city officials and department heads, Cylke said she still found it “disappointing” that there haven't been more concessions from the police and fire department unions. She noted that she has voluntarily increased her medical insurance co-pay to 20 percent and will take 10 furlough days (which she says she will work) to do her own small part in trying to help with the deficit. “Regardless, we can be proud in the Pawtucket School Department to have a balanced budget during a time of recession.”
The good news in all of this, Cylke said, is that through a combination of local funds and federal funds, it looks as though all 13 of the school district's social workers, who had been laid off earlier in the year, will be recommended for rehire. She said these positions are especially important at the elementary school level, where there are no counselors regularly assigned. “The social workers are the ones who work with the kids and the families that are in need,” said Cylke. The School Committee is expected to vote on these and other teacher recalls at a special meeting on Tuesday night.
Cylke credited the district's new Special Education Director, Eileen Crudele, with finding a way to achieve a projected $800,000 in savings from the district's $6 million budget for outplacement services for special education students. She said that by reviewing each special education student's Individual Education Plan (IEP), she found some 21 students, now in outside programs, who will be able to be brought back into the Pawtucket school district to receive their education.
Cylke said of these 21 students, two will be placed at the Alternative Learning Program, five will go to an ESL program and the rest will be in classroom settings. Two special education teachers and three aides will be hired to handle the additional special education students.
Cylke said that with the students in the outplacement programs, it is not just about saving money, but also a matter of keeping a child closer to home and their neighborhood school. She said that these students being returned will have a high quality classroom setting and highly trained teachers.
The superintendent also said that only those students deemed fit to be in mainstream school setting are being returned to the district, and stressed that any students with a history of violence, sex-offenses or more severe mental health issues would stay in their respective outplacement programs.
Cylke said that the school district's special needs population, which was about 20 percent of the student population, is now down to about 16 percent. She credits this in part to a better response to intervention. She also praised Crudele for her willingness to take a closer look at each student's IEP and trying to determine what was in their best interest. “In the end, it is a win-win situation,” she stated.
Of the balanced budget, School Committee Chairman Raymond Spooner said that there was “a lot of pain involved, but it was our goal from the beginning of the year to balance it out. Now, we have to get moving with the education portion. ” He added, “We're in a lot better shape than we were in January.”
Spooner said he is still concerned about the final state budget and what it will mean to Pawtucket. He said he is wary of any loss in state aid, noting that “we worked very hard to do this (budget).” He said that, going forward, the School Department will have to continue to watch its spending and try to build up reserves wherever it can “even though the recession doesn't look like it's ending any time soon.”