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School budget not set in stone

July 11, 2013

PAWTUCKET — Freeze frame. The School Department currently has a balanced budget for fiscal year 2014. However, while the School Committee approved the $102 million spending plan on Wednesday night, there are several big expenses looming that could change this picture considerably.
Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke noted that, by Charter rule, the School Department is required to send the city a budget by April 30 of each year. On April 23, a fiscal 2014 budget was presented to school officials reflecting known revenue and expenditures.
However, this was too early to know how much revenue would be coming from the state, and because of the federal “sequestration,” there were no final figures for the federally funded programs. It was reported in April there was a potential for a $1.1 million surplus.
By a May 14 budget update, Cylke said some key changes in expenditures had occurred, leaving a potential $427,788 deficit. While there was an increase in state aid, the city decided to not include $511,000 in its “maintenance of effort” allotment to the schools and there were anticipated expenses related to the Council 94 (non-certified employees) contract.
Additionally, the budget was adjusted to anticipate a 10 percent reduction in federal funds, with these necessary expenses moved to the general fund, and estimated savings figures from teacher “breakage” (savings generated from retirements) and other unidentified cuts were excluded.
Cylke said that with the legislative session now over and state aid confirmed, and with the city budget finalized, new School Finance Officer Melissa Devine has proposed a budget that addresses the previously estimated $427,788 deficit. A key piece is that 11 teachers have officially retired, generating a savings of $293,320 in the “teacher breakage” line that was higher than an original projection.
Devine also outlined a number of smaller budget adjustments and revisions, including those based on knowing the actual revenue figures from the state on vocational and charter school tuitions and reductions in the employee health benefits from 4.5 percent to 4 percent.
The good news is that medical reserves are currently about $1.3 million. School officials also learned that with the final education funding formula now enacted, the district is gaining an additional $794,664 in state aid over what had been originally estimated. Federal funding figures are yet to be finalized, although Cylke said that the revenue come in higher than the 10 percent reduction figure that school officials had been warned expect because of the sequestration.
However, Cylke also pointed out to the school board that there are three substantial budget categories left “to be determined” that will affect the FY14 budget. In addition to the final determination of the federal funding allocation, there are additional ceiling repairs needed in the schools, and the contract expenses associated when new bargaining agreements are reached for the teachers and administrators. Contact negotiations are currently underway, and nothing has been set aside in the FY14 budget for any salary increases or other expenses
Cylke said the initial $179,000 repair work to address the Potter-Burns and Nathanael Greene schools' ceilings was funded from the FY13 budget. However, when she asked the architectural firm, Rowse Architects, to conduct an inspection of the district's school buildings that were of a similar construction vintage, it was reported that several other ceiling repair and safety issues need to be addressed. These include problems involving a plaster beam over the pool at Shea High School, asbestos removal from the principal's office at Nathanael Greene, four ceilings that need immediate replacing at Potter-Burns, and other classrooms and public spaces at Tolman High and Goff and Slater Junior High schools that have been closed due to identified concerns.
When pushed by committee members for a price on these repairs, Cylke said an initial estimate had been given of $700,000. However, she said she thought this seemed high and was going to be reviewing it with the department's building consultants. She also said she would look further into which repairs are a priority to do by September, or consider keeping some of the areas off-limits until a later date. Cylke added that she was also looking into whether there was any state or federal money for emergency repairs that the schools could qualify for.
School Committee member Raymond Spooner noted that with all of the unknowns, the budget is “technically, not balanced.” School Committee members David Coughlin and Joanne Bonollo also said they did not like the idea of approving a budget that was not going to remain “balanced” for long, given the outstanding expenses and variables. However, Cylke said that without an approved budget submitted to the city, she would be uncomfortable approving any purchase orders and might even have to seek a waiver to cover School Department payroll expenses.
School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro noted that this scenario has happened with previous school budgets, given the timing of the budget process. He said the spending plan will obviously require budget amendments over the next few months.
After lengthy discussion, the board approved the FY14 budget by a vote of 5 to 1, with Coughlin the lone opponent. Committeewoman Nicole Nordquist was not in attendance.

On a related note, Cylke said the new batch of school repairs will have to go out to bid soon, and the School Committee will have to schedule a meeting in early August to approve the bids. This leaves a small window for the contractors to do the work before the school year begins again on Aug. 28
In other matters, the committee also voted to approve job descriptions to hire a special education director that will be renamed “director of student personnel services” and for two new positions, called “multi-tiered systems of support” (MTSS). The individuals in the MTSS jobs will work with the staff at the four elementary schools that were recently placed on “warning” status by the state Department of Education.
School Committeewoman Sandra Cano had argued that she would rather see the students at these schools get more direct support in the classroom, rather than having the extra help go to the teachers. However, elementary school performance officer Kathleen Siriani said these positions are designed to evaluate data that will show where individual students are falling behind and will help the teachers reach out to these students with early intervention.
The committee also approved a contract for the implementation of a new computer system called Skyward that will be the School Department's student information contact system. The system allows for a broad range of data to be entered on the student's behalf, from attendance, grades and coursework to health and medical records, and the information will stay with the student throughout their school career.
The three-year year contract for the Skyward system costs a total of $319,590, with the first year, which includes training for teachers and implementation, being the most expensive, at $169,110. The money for year one of the system is included in the FY14 budget, Cylke said.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna


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