NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A proposed shortfall from requested school funding in the $107 million proposed town budget may require “extreme program cuts,” said School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg.
In a recent 3-2 vote, the town council voted to fund schools at about $1 million less than school officials’ request for education spending in the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Town and school officials differ on the estimates of the appropriation shortfall, with ranges between $1.14 million and $1.9 million.
In addition, the town is extending the due date for mooring fees through May 31, 2020 and are waiving all late fees through May 31. Applications and payments will be due May 31, 2020. The previous $100 late fee will apply to any payments made after May 31, 2020. As of July 1, 2020, any unpaid permit fees will result in a cancellation of the permit and mooring removed at the permittee’s expense.
Also, the April 30 due date (installment) for fourth quarter taxes has been extended to May 31, 2020. This extension does not apply to escrowed funds, which are taxes already paid by local taxpayers to the holders of their mortgages. This extension will apply as well to all water and sewer bills due April 30.
School funding issues, however, add to the uncertainty in an already difficult school year as officials deal with the shutdown of buildings, distance learning and many other issues outside of usual operations, say school officials.
Blasbalg also added that trouble is ahead even with the “best case scenarios” for the school budget. “It will be impossible for the school department to provide the same level of services and programs in the 2020-2021 school year if the town council’s proposed budget is adopted,” he said.
Town officials, according to Council President Greg Mancini, who opposed the budget, say they are attempting to keep a no-tax-increase budget given the significant economic hits to Rhode Island, town revenue sources and homeowners’ ability to pay property taxes.
The town held a public hearing Monday on the school and municipal budgets. A formal vote to adopt them is scheduled for May 4.
School officials, including Superintendent Philip Auger, have not listed official specific program eliminations if the council leaves intact the more than $1 million-dollar reduction or if school officials use some of its own estimated $2 million in surplus funds as Blasbalg suggested could happen.
Mancini said that school officials have approached the council to help further buffer the proposed shortfall by switching $400,000 allocated for capital improvements to school operations instead.
Mancini said he has seen nearly 30 letters or emails from town residents about the proposed reduction. A majority of letters, he said, oppose it.
In one note from Tanja Carroll, she wrote to the town council on April 15 that “this reduction WILL harm programming in our district. The budget is lean, there is nowhere else to cut other than employees and programming.
“It’s possible that mental health support professionals who are crucial to the social-emotional well-being of our students would be cut, spreading the resources we do have even thinner when in reality we need more mental health support for our students,” she wrote.
She also said, “A budget reduction would spread our teachers thinner, increasing their work load and reducing the attention they are able to give individual students. The fact that our teachers are valuable and hard-working has been front and center over the past few weeks.”
On the other side, Dr. Barry Sharaf wrote to the council that the town’s teachers’ association “misrepresented your proposed funding of the school budget by alleging that you ‘cut their budget’ (funding proposal) when you simply requested that they access their “rainy day” reserve to close the gap.”
He pointed out that many households and business have had to tap savings in the past month to satisfy financial obligations.
He added, “A property tax increase in 2020 is completely insensitive to the financial uncertainty and daily struggle that our residents and businesses are facing – through no fault of our own.”
Cuts were made in other parts of the town budget except for police, fire and other non-emergency operations. Among the reductions were $200,000 from the finance department, $320,000 in public works, $10,000 from the town council and $143,000 from planning.