PAWTUCKET — While questions linger about how some of the money will be found in the local budget to pay for part of the state-approved Transformation Plan for Shea and Tolman high schools, the School Committee on Thursday voted to approve the plan as well as the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal.
At a special meeting on Thursday night, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke told the committee that she and the other members of the Transformation Team were pleased that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) had approved the Transformation Plan as well as a $2.1 million School Improvement Grant. While less than the amount that had been requested, Cylke said the federal grant, which provides $349,297 each to Tolman and Shea for three years, will go a long way in helping the school district to implement the ambitious reform plan.
Cylke said that the Transformation Team had asked for a School Improvement Grant of approximately $965,000 for the schools and ended up getting almost $700,000. She made clear, however, that RIDE expects the school district to fully implement the Transformation Plan as approved, so any balance of costs must be made up through the local school operating budget.
The superintendent told the committee that right off the top, RIDE said it would not pay for new laptop computers for every teacher at the high school, a part of the plan that costs approximately $127,000. Plus, there are other smaller expenses not covered, creating an amount of about $138,000 for Shea and Tolman that will have to be found in the local budget. She added, however, that having to find $138,000 out of a budget of almost $1 million is “not a lot.”
Prior to the vote to accept the Transformation Plan and School Improvement Grant, School Committeewoman Nicole Nordquist objected to the committee endorsing the plan when members don't know exactly what areas of the FY13 budget would have to be cut or altered to make up the difference. “I want to know what programs will be affected and what else will suffer,” Nordquist stated.
Cylke said she felt confident that the money could be found in the budget, although she couldn't say just where yet. For example, she said the FY13 budget proposal included funding for 10 new teacher positions, and suggested perhaps that these could be cut down to eight, or other types of adjustments made to line items. She also said there was still a possibility that the school district could be awarded an additional $2.1 million in state revenue from the governor's proposed meals tax increase.
Still unconvinced, Nordquist asked if the vote could be split so the committee could move to accept the federal grant but hold off on the acceptance of the Transformation Plan until the funding needed from the local budget could be identified.
However, School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro noted that the Transformation Plan and federal grant money had been approved by RIDE and said it was important that the School Committee formally vote to accept these items as a show of support.
The committee voted unanimously to accept the School Improvement Grant and 5 to 1 to endorse the Transformation Plan (Nordquist was the lone dissenting vote). Committeeman David Coughlin did not attend the meeting.
In other matters, the School Committee voted unanimously to accept the budget proposal as presented by School Business Manager Thomas Conlon and Cylke for fiscal year 2013. The $99 million budget is $6.2 million higher than the $92.8 million current spending plan, reflecting an increase of 6.7 percent. The vote included an amendment that allowed for line item adjustments that may be needed to fund the Transformation Plan. The budget is required to be submitted to the City Council by April 30.
No one from the public commented on the budget, which had been unveiled at the last School Committee meeting on April 10. While there are many questions still remaining about state funding, school officials pointed out that the district is in much more positive financial shape than it was a year ago, including having almost $6.4 million more in revenue to work with.
Conlon cautioned that there was a possibility of a $1 million shortfall in the current year's budget that might have to be dealt with and a potential reduction of $278,000 in the “maintenance of effort” amount that the city has to give the schools. However, he said the FY13 spending plan still assumes no reliance on the medical reserves fund and only half the amount used last year from the “unspecified cuts” line and also does not contain the $2.1 million in potential additional aid that could be coming from the state.
Also on Thursday, the School Committee voted to approve a bond request of $5 million to be placed on the November ballot for school improvements. This is an increase from the $3 million bond that has typically been placed on the ballot every two years for school repairs.
The increase was part of a capital improvements plan for health and safety upgrades that school officials want to embark on. The cost, if approved by RIDE, would be eligible for state reimbursement of 75 to 80 percent. On Tuesday, SMMA, the consulting firm hired to do the second phase of a facilities plan for the city's 15 schools, outlined about $11.7 million in repairs and renovations geared towards health and safety items concerns. Such repairs include things like new heating systems, fire alarm upgrades, drinking fountains, broken ceiling tiles, roof leaks, and more.
Overall, the facilities study by SMMA showed about $150 million is needed to totally revamp all of the city's schools and bring them up to current educational and building standards. However, given the state's fiscal crisis, RIDE has a moratorium on new school construction and renovation projects until 2014, with the exception of repairs needed to address immediate health and safety issues. The proposal must first be approved by RIDE, and the SMMA representatives said they are working to complete the proposal to submit to RIDE by the May 1 deadline.
Cylke said the $3 million that the schools have received every two years provides for “just Band-aids” in the way of upgrades and repairs. She said she would like to request a $5 million bond this year, and in two years, another $5 million. Beyond that, she said that a capital campaign to pay for the larger and significantly more costly restorations of the district's schools as recommended in the facilities study will have to become a discussion for city officials and taxpayers in 2014.
Cylke stressed the importance of educating taxpayers on the fact that the cost of these upgrades, including the interest on the bond, will be reimbursed by RIDE at 75 to 80 percent.
School Committeeman Raymond Spooner also commented that while he realizes this request will fall on taxpayers, and that it is an election year, it is vital to the city's future that it invest in its school system. “This is survival of Pawtucket, period,” he stated.
Also on Thursday, the committee voted to approve the 2012-2013 school calendar, and a spending freeze on discretionary and non-grant items for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The committee also approved a deficit reduction plan for the the FY10 budget that calls for the city to pay $150,000 this year (on top of $150,000 that was paid last year) and then $511,463 in each of the next four years to eliminate the schools' remaining “negative fund balances.”