NORTH KINGSTOWN — At the first North Kingstown School Committee meeting of 2020, the 15 percent capital reserve fee dominated public comment and carried over into the meeting itself, seeing the item pertaining to it moved up earlier in the meeting as multiple parents and students, many of which with connections to the school’s musical theater department, voicing their displeasure with the fee.
Of the nine community members who participated in public comment, eight spoke directly to the issue, from parents of elementary school children to high school students as the School Committee deemed they needed more time to discuss the issue and speak with the community as they voted to table the measure until the next meeting.
The fee, which was approved at the Aug. 27 School Committee meeting ahead of the start of the school year, is meant to grow the district’s capital reserve fund for building projects and other maintenance issues by collecting 15 percent of the sales from “events conducted by any outside organization, internal staff (for example athletics, theater, music) and/or PTO sponsored events and/or fundraisers that charge general admission to the public at the door or in the form of ticket sales or participation fees,” as per language in the agenda packet for the meeting. Student-only or other similar events such as elementary school dances are exempt from the fee.
Some parents and students took issue with the fee, calling it an unnecessary tax on those participating in extracurricular activities that punishes those organizations by dipping into their fundraising efforts to support and maintain themselves in order to pay for other projects.
Several parents and students connected to the musical theater department argued that it was affecting them the most, saying that the fee “just doesn’t feel right” and that the department already doesn’t have a budget to work with and are entirely dependent on their ticket sales from shows to survive.
“We only have six shows a year to make budget,” Jill Pezza, a parent of two NKHS students that participate in both musical theater and athletics as well as a member of the musical theater booster club, said.
Superintendent Phil Auger described the characterization as “inaccurate,” arguing that the department does have a budget and pointed to a recent $400,000 light replacement for the school’s auditorium as a project they benefited from and that the fee pertained to all extracurriculars that draw a large number of the public.
While he supports the measure, Auger said he is flexible and will support whatever action the committee chooses.
“I appreciate the comments tonight,” Auger said. “This is an item we are happy to follow how the committee wants us to move. It is something new; people talk about the feeling of it and it does feel different because it’s not something that we have done before. One way or another, I personally am not going to lose sleep over it one way or another, I just want you to know that I am more than happy to go with the way the committee would like.”
Auger countered that he’s seen many committees criticized for not doing enough to repair or replace things such as the track at the high school or flooring and surfacing at the elementary schools and that many of those repairs sat undone due to a lack of capital reserve funds until bond initiatives were needed to fund their repairs, and that by collecting money from ticket sales largely purchased by non-students was a way to be proactive on funding future repairs before they became expensive enough to require bond initiatives.
School Committee President Gregory Blasbalg said the fee wouldn’t apply to organizations receiving a donation and ensured that the committee doesn’t want to pull money out of organizations supporting the North Kingstown schools, while Chief Operating Officer Mary King said the district is “very, very passionate” about getting capital funding to maintain and support the schools as a whole.
Blasbalg said the general consensus for the fee was that it should not be applied to school dances, as many critics argued it could hinder the overall experience of such events, and that he believed there was still much more to be discussed and figured out before calling a vote to table the measure until the next meeting. His motion passed 4-0, as School Committee member Lisa Hildebrand was not present for the meeting.
On other issues, the School Committee unanimously approved the purchase of musical instruments and HV/AC unit repairs at NKHS as well as a rooftop unit replacement project for Quidnessett Elementary School, a PTO-funded playground proposal at Hamilton Elementary School, Rhode Island Foundation Sparks Grants for the district’s elementary schools and the proposed 2020/21 North Kingstown School Department Academic Calendar.
Auger commended NKHS principal Barbara Morse and others for dealing with the issue of graffiti found at the high school upon returning to classes on Jan. 2, with Auger saying an arrest should be coming soon for those responsible for the vandalism.
The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at the North Kingstown School Department Administrative Building at 100 Romano Vineyard Way.