PAWTUCKET — The ongoing issue of how to solve a lingering, multi-year school deficit and whether surplus money from the last fiscal year should be applied, will be at the forefront of tonight’s School Committee meeting. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the Jenks/JMW School Complex.
At a budget worksession held on Saturday, school officials discussed a deficit reduction plan and how to handle a $2.3 million deficit for fiscal year 2012. School officials have reported a surplus for the fiscal year 2013 of $1.6 million. Yet, citing the unexpected ceiling and asbestos repairs and higher than expected costs due to increased enrollment, there is now a deficit situation that has developed in the current fiscal year budget.
At its last regular meeting, the School Committee voted to move almost $900,000 from the fiscal year 2013 surplus for use in balancing the new fiscal 2014 budget. Committee members took no action on a remaining $843,000, saying they could need it to cover other unexpected expenses moving forward.
However, the state Auditor General wrote a memorandum to Mayor Donald Grebien backing city officials’ contention that all of the fiscal year 2013 surplus should go toward paying down past year school budget deficits. The Auditor General wrote that the schools were legally bound to do this, yet school officials countered that their attorney didn’t feel this was necessarily the case.
On Friday, Mayor Donald Grebien and Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke had met to discuss the issue once again, and by late Friday, Grebien announced that he and the top leaders of the City Council had discussed a funding transfer of $621,383 that would erase all of the projected net school funding deficit that has been accumulated for fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013. The mayor said that bringing the cumulative school budget back to zero would be a big step toward improving the city’s credit rating.
Besides having School Committee approval of the latest debt reduction plan, transferring the $621,383 from the city side to the schools will also require approval by the City Council.
Indicating a willingness to at least keep the options open, the School Committee on Saturday voted 4 to 3 to rescind its previous vote to take $900,000 out of the fiscal year 2013 surplus. School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro, who did not vote to support the measure, said the action was taken to basically set the stage for further discussion on the deficit.
Tenreiro noted, however, that this new action puts the current school budget in a deficit situation, which is why he did not vote in favor of the action. He said he believes that the School Committee has the legal basis to take an active role in deciding how a school budget surplus can be used.
Tenreiro added that school officials have been cooperating with the city in trying to erase the cumulative school deficit, even though some of it was “manufactured,” in many ways, by the city reducing its funding share. Added to that were the unexpected problems with the school ceilings, which had to be addressed immediately and resulted in about $1 million of costs.
“We wouldn’t be having as much of a conversation if these ceiling repairs hadn’t happened,” Tenreiro said. “We’ll figure out the best way to get rid of the deficit, but we think we need some assistance with the ceiling costs,” he said. Facing $1 million in repairs so far, and perhaps more needed, he said a deficit reduction plan for this purpose might be in order.
Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke also noted that the school deficit situation is a complex issue because if the School Committee chooses to use all of the fiscal year 2013 surplus to address the past deficit, it automatically creates a deficit in the current fiscal year. “It’s not an issue of overspending. There has been a series of circumstances beyond our control,” she said.
Cylke acknowledged that the Pawtucket School Department qualified to receive equity funding from the state, but said this was largely because the city has not funded the schools properly This state funding, she said, is meant to bring Pawtucket up to the state average in per pupil spending.
“The Pawtucket School Department deserves an award for operating on a budget so far below what other communities have to accomplish the same education goals,” said Cylke. “To put this in perspective, West Warwick has 3,300 students and the city contributes $28 million to the school department. Pawtucket has 8,900 students and the contribution from the city is $29 million. Thus, the equity funding monies Pawtucket qualified for are to close the gap and get us to the state average over time.”
Cylke continued, “This is in light of the fact that communities like Woonsocket and Pawtucket do not have a strong tax base. Some communities lose money with the funding formula and others gain.”
In an email to the Times, Mayor Donald Grebien said that with his proposed deficit reduction plan that will eliminate the cumulative school deficits, the city’s overall financial picture will look much more positive to the bond rating agencies.
The mayor said that while he knows the superintendent and all of the school committee members understand the importance of providing a quality education, they also need to factor in what the residents and city can afford.
“Each million dollars in deficit equals a 33-cent per thousand increase. We can no longer look at the city finances with narrow vision and need to work cooperatively to balance the budgets,” Grebien stated.
Grebien added that the deficit reduction plan being proposed by the administration “will require some tough and objective decision-making,” but said “it will go a long way in working comparatively as we go forward to improve the city’s overall financial position.”
The mayor added, “It is my hope that the superintendent along with legal counsel will advise the school committee properly and not from a self-serving position. This administration and council continue to look forward and look to improve the overall conditions of our city and schools and are asking the school committee to work with us.”