NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — On the same day students in North Kingstown and across the state returned to classes, both online and in-person, the North Kingstown Town Council unanimously approved the North Kingstown School Committee’s request for an additional supplemental appropriation of $500,000 to help cover the costs of the district’s reopening plan and other added expenses brought on by COVID-19.
The request was made by the School Committee during a special Saturday meeting on Aug. 29, during which they approved Option 4 of Superintendent Phil Auger’s proposed elementary school reopening plans. The plans call for the transfer of existing district resources, the hiring of 13 new elementary school teachers on one-year contracts and additions to their short-term district-wide health and social-emotional support capabilities. It will also fill out instructional and administrative needs for the Distance Learning Academy, which has 300 elementary school students, reduce class sizes at the other elementary schools and add administrative control over the DLA.
The measure replaced the district’s previously preferred Option 3 which, while incurring no additional financial cost to the district, would’ve seen the temporary closure of Forest Park Elementary School, the sending of its students to Quidnesset and Fishing Cove and the dispersement of its staff throughout the district, a controversial move which met the ire of many in the Forest Park community.
While Option 4 kept Forest Park open, it also incurred an additional $1 million on the district budget, with the district paying half of the cost out of their Capital Reserve Fund while asking the town to cover the other half in order to help keep future budgets more on track in the years ahead as the nation cleans up from COVID-19 and future state funding numbers remain uncertain.
“We’re not in a position where we have a lot to draw from,” Auger said.
Auger, School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg and NKSD CFO Mary King made the district’s case to the Town Council, with Blasbalg stressing the importance of securing the funding to the future continued success of the town’s public school system with all of the current uncertainties.
“We do not know what our Fiscal Year 2020/21 budget is going to look like,” Blasbalg said. “We’re worried about structural deficits going forward into next year.”
Councilor Richard Welch expressed that, while he didn’t oppose the measure, he had concerns with asking taxpayers to provide additional funds to the district when they already had money in their Capital Reserve Fund. Blasblag countered by saying the money he was talking about has already been committed to preventing the district from going into deficits over the next few years.
King expanded upon Blasbalg’s comments, adding that maintaining a small Capital Reserve Fund for the district has saved them from having to go to the town to ask for money on numerous repair projects and other surprise costs.
When asked by Councilor Kerry McKay about how the district planned to bill the town, she said the funds would be needed “sooner rather than later” and that she would work with Town Manager Ralph Mollis to come up with a reasonable timetable for payment, which will come from the town’s fund balance.
Councilor Mary Brimer suggested they look at making the disbursements to the district on a quarterly basis over the next year, with the town and district going dollar-for-dollar on costs and delivering reports to Mollis, who said he would take them at face value, a point that was backed by members of the council.
“Auditing and micromanaging is not the goal,” Brimer said.
Councilor Kevin Maloney expressed his concerns regarding the money if the schools were forced to go back to full distance learning due to another wave of COVID-19, though King told him that if such a scenario happened, it would negate a lot of the added costs, as they wouldn’t need daily heavy cleanings or additional contracted nurses if no students were in the building and all contracts they had could be canceled in such a scenario.
The measure, which was moved to be ahead of the consent agenda by Town Council President Greg Mancini with support of the council, passed 5-0.
Much of the evening’s business was approved with relative ease, with the most notable measure being the decision to extend the State of Emergency through the final meeting of the year on Dec. 14, which passed 4-0 with Brimer abstaining.
Mollis said the declaration allows the town to better assist residents and businesses with COVID-19 recovery. While McKay expressed her desire for things to go back to normal as soon as possible in town, he suggested continuing the order through the end of the year in hopes of not having to extend the declaration again.
Mollis also announced that the Beechwood Senior Center is beginning its phased reopening, with hopes of providing some services by the end of the month and entering Phase II sometime in October. He also suggested that the North Kingstown Free Library could return to full service as soon as Monday.
Other notable business of the night included approving the appointments of two community members to town boards to fulfill the remainder of the terms of outgoing members. Deborah Sabo was appointed to fulfill the remainder of Susan Hannel’s term on the Arts Council, while Richard Lemieux was appointed to the Leisure Services Advisory Committee to fulfill the remainder of Michael McGovern’s term. Sabo’s term runs through March, while Lemieux’s term will see him through July 1, 2023. Both were approved unanimously.
The open positions for the Asset Management Committee and Second Alternate to the Zoning Board of Review were left unfilled as the council voted 5-0 to re-advertise them.