NARRAGANSETT – In presenting the Narragansett School Committee’s proposed budget to the town council, Superintendent Katherine Sipala spoke of the need to keep up with established high standards and an increasing poverty level at the district’s schools.
According to Sipala, “almost 25 percent” of the students at Narragansett Elementary Student are at or below the poverty line.
“We have an increasing poverty level in the general population, and we have an increasing poverty level at our schools too,” she said. “That’s very different, and that’s changed in Narragansett. We have to make sure all of our programs give all children an equal playing field.”
However, Sipala said that she thought taxpayers could be proud of how the district has spent money in the past, referring to a No. 2 ranking in reading and a No. 5 ranking in math on the NECAP testing.
“That is what we’re delivering as a school department, and we want to keep delivering,” she said. “I can stand here and say that we’ve done a good job with the taxpayer’s money.”
As a result, Sipala said the committee was asking for an increase of $467,678, or 1.93 percent, in funding from the town, after several years of level funding.
“Yes, we are asking for an increase, but we are asking for it most respectfully,” she said. “We have had two years of the same level of appropriation, and we have been able to make it with those reductions, but further reductions would change those high-performing skills.”
The overall budget would increase by 3.87 percent, to about $27.5 million, thanks to a shifting of expenses, some federal grants and increased state aid. The town appropriation would be about $24.7 million with the $467,678 increase.
According to school department figures, the budget would allow for the employment of 260 people, about 40 percent of whom live in Narragansett.
The biggest year-to-year increase comes in teacher salaries, at about $827,000. About $517,000 is budgeted for raises, with the remaining amount going toward new positions and the loss or expiration of federal grants for existing positions.
When asked by councilor David Crook about the role of parents in student excellence, Sipala said they have to educate students regardless of the lack or abundance of support.
“We have a lot of great parent cooperation, but you can’t tell every family what to do,” she said.
Sipala said they did look into some other ways to reduce the budget, such as eliminating bus monitors. However, she said that was a step that had only been taken by districts in dire financial straits, would require special approval, and would only save about $100,000 at most.
Crook also asked Sipala whether the small size of the district prevented certain programs.
Sipala said that the district did do a good job of providing learning and athletic options, but it didn’t come cheaply.
“The broadness of our programming costs money,” she said. “I think we’ve done pretty well in the competition and competitiveness. [High School principal] Mr. [Dan] Warner took a few clubs out this year because the numbers weren’t there, but young people like to be active.”
Warner said that although enrollment at the high school might drop, it didn’t always equate to a loss of a teacher, because of the breadth of classes they had to offer.
“Having just 500 kids at our high school does make it difficult to be comprehensive,” he said. “We could certainly offer two [as opposed to three] languages, but that decreases the level of our high school.”
Warner said the number of AP courses offered at the high school increases every year, and cited the colleges students are attending as signs of their success – Yale, Fordham, Stanford, Brown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sipala said the increase in funding would go toward 3.8 new staff positions. She noted that for fiscal year 2012, she cut five positions, and staffing was still down overall from when she started as superintendent.
“That was a difficult time last year, but we looked at anything we could administratively and made significant reductions last year,” she said. “In the last six years, I’ve been a cooperative administrator with you, and made as many cuts as I could.”
Several residents spoke in favor of the proposed budget, with no one speaking against it. The council closed the hearing after about two hours at 9:30 p.m.