The South Kingstown School Committee is counting on collective bargaining agreements and a tax levy increase to cushion the impact of a third year of cuts to student programs and a $2.55 million budget shortfall.
On Monday night, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow presented the committee with five options to balance next year’s $58 million school budget during a work session with the assembled committee. Two scenarios were immediately thrown out and ruled “unpalatable” by all seven committee members. Option one would assume no concessions in the collective bargaining agreement, leaving the district with a $2.55 million shortfall. Option five would allow the district to move all of its current programs forward while freezing teacher salaries and increasing their health care co-pays. It would require a tax levy increase of 3.4 percent, an equivalent of about $1.6 million in added revenues.
Three union contracts are set to expire on Aug. 31, and even if school officials are successful in their bid for a zero percent salary increase and 20 percent health care co-pay for all employees, they will still fall $1.6 million short of balancing next year’s budget. Unwilling to cut programs for a third year without an increase in property taxes, School Committee members agreed funding shortfalls would need to be absorbed by taxpayers, school employees and cuts within the district.
“Our role is to advocate for the school department and the umbrella statement for me is what we need to do to provide education for our students, balanced by the community’s ability to pay,” said Chairwoman Maureen E. Cotter. “We all need to be a part of the solution.”
“You can make the argument that zero [increase] will not be viable again this year, but I wouldn’t make the argument that even a 2 percent increase is viable, even for taxpayers who support education,” said Committeeman Scott Mueller. “There are too many families struggling to meet the taxes that they are already experiencing.”
Option two was the budgetary assumption that Stringfellow and committee members have considered over the past few budget sessions relative to how the district would make up for a remaining $1.6 million shortfall after freezing salaries and increasing staff health care co-pays to 20 percent. This scenario assumed a zero percent tax increase from the town.
“I feel that two years with a zero percent increase and now three years with zero increase doesn’t match what our school system needs to stay competitive with its students,” said committee Vice Chairman Dr. Anthony Mega. “I recognize that there are households in pain, but these households also need quality public education and there are no options for these households to find quality education outside of the system. I think eventually we need to speak to what we need, there has to be a sharing of that $1.6 million. Losing that whole number would accelerate a deterioration in education that may be too hard to recover from at a point when the economy might be better able to support education.”
Left with the last two scenarios, committee members wrestled with the question of how much money taxpayers might be able to afford in order to sustain quality education in the town. A one percent increase in property taxes would mean an added $479,909 in revenues, but would still leave the school department with a $1.2 million deficit. The last option would opt for a two percent tax levy increase, or about $959,818 in additional revenues, leaving the school department with about $640,184 in unfunded programs.
Committeeman Richard Angeli said some kind of tax levy increase would be necessary, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming contract negotiations.
“I don’t really want to cut programs again this year,” Angeli said, admitting that some concessions were inevitable. “I think we have done enough of that over the past two years. Some community members have spoken and there are more out there who speak in terms of the overcapacity of our buildings. We can’t go year to year kidding ourselves that we’re not going to have to cross that bridge at some point.”
Committee members agreed that structural consolidation could save the district and taxpayers money, but most were weary to make a hasty decision about closing a school to balance the budget.
“I don’t believe that as we sit here today that we would make the most informed decision for our community about how the schools should be configured,” Mega said. “I think that it is a tremendous responsibility and I want the community to look at it as something that is worth the investment of time.”
“I see any school consolidation conversation as better had outside the budget process,” agreed Cotter.
Set to don the stamp of approval at its next meeting, the School Committee will review possible areas of to cut in greater detail with Stringfellow before approving a budget to send to the Town Council.
Although much of the areas to cut remain the same as last year, Stringfellow said she has identified several new areas to tighten. Before shaving more off of student programs, she said personnel in some clerical, guidance, physical education and special education departments could be consolidated at a savings to the district.
“This is an economic crisis and the solution is that everyone will bleed,” Mueller said.
The School Committee will vote to accept the 2012 budget after a final presentation on revenues and cuts to programs at its Feb. 8 meeting at 7 p.m. in the high school library, 215 Columbia St.