CUMBERLAND — Saying the stakes could not be higher, Mayor Daniel J. McKee has called on the Town Council and the community to recommit to investing in public education, saying restoring Cumberland as a top ranked school district is about much more than budget dollars.
“This is not only an educational journey we're talking about here, it's also a political and economic journey and that's where the Town Council, mayor's office and community are going to have to get engaged,” McKee told the council at last week's public hearing on his proposed $82.8 town operating budget for fiscal 2013.
“It's not just about looking at the budget,” he said. “It's not about that any longer. It's about holding the public schools we invest in accountable for the outcomes and relying on our educators to come forward with a plan that will dramatically change outcomes in our schools so that we are once again leaders in the state.”
McKee's comments came during a lengthy debate on the proposed $54,362,530 school operating budget for fiscal 2013, which represents a $2.8 million, or 5 percent increase, over the current $52,574,966 spending plan. McKee is recommending the full amount as requested by the School Committee.
The school budget includes four key initiatives designed to what School Superintendent Phillip Thornton says will systemically transform Cumberland into a progressive and educationally responsive district that is deliberately focused on the work of raising students achievement.
“What's happening in our community and all over the state of Rhode Island is that we're becoming poorer, less educated and older and, because of that, are ability to pay for services is being compromised,” McKee told the council.
“In terms of education, Rhode Island has lagged behind the rest of the nation and we're admitting that is true. Over the past two years, Cumberland has lost its place as a top school district in the state. We also acknowledge that.”
McKee says in terms of overall student performance, the Cumberland School District's ranking has not done better than 25th in the state, and that high school has not done much better, over the past two years. Right now, the high school ranks 34th in the state.
“The stakes are high and that is why we want to make this investment,” McKee said in reference to the proposed 5 percent increase in school spending. “We recognize education as the pathway to our future prosperity. It's an economic issue. As a mayor, I believe we need to rely on our educational leadership for the answers and from where we sit as elected officials on the municipal side, we need to hold our public schools accountable.”
McKee's proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 will see a modest property tax increase of between one and two percent and well under the state's four percent tax cap.
McKee is proposing an $82,882,869 town operating budget for fiscal 2013, which is $3,736,081, or 4.72 percent, higher than the current $79,146,788 budget.
Included in the overall budget is the a $54,362,530 school operating budget for fiscal 2013. The school budget includes four key initiatives, including math, specifically the implementation of a new math curriculum vehicle and a mandatory after school math program; technology and science; and all-day kindergarten.
A full-day kindergarten program is also in place in the 2013 budget.
According to the proposal, each of the five elementary schools is scheduled for a kindergarten through Grade 5 span. Additionally, boundary lines have been relocated to accommodate the program, which will cost the district $502,666.
School officials have said that state aid will increase by the number of kindergarten students 12 months after the start of the program. Starting in Fiscal 2014, Cumberland will receive increments of $100,000 each year full day kindergarten is in operation. By fiscal year 2018, Cumberland will see the full value of the full day kindergarten students with a $500,000 increase in state aid for each student in the program.
McKee's recommended budget, which was submitted to the Town Council two weeks ago, shows a municipal operating budget increase of just under $1 million, which includes, among other things, $250,000 to the local police pension fund and a $163,000 increase in the state pension payment.
“The $1 million (increase) has been a topic tonight and will be a topic throughout the budget process,” McKee told the council. “The reason why I placed that dollar amount inside the town side of the budget is because I believe we have a performance agreement that really speaks to the Declaration of Education (adopted by town in January). We can do this and I believe we have the leadership in place to do just that. We need to realize that we have lost our place and that we're recommitted to regaining that place.”
Taxpayers will get a second chance to sound off on the budget at a final public hearing Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the council's chambers at Town Hall, 45 Broad St. The first vote will take place that night.
The final vote on the budget, which has described as traditionally being a “three-minute” meeting, will take place on June 24 at Town Hall.