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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The North Kingstown Town Council voted against requesting that the School Committee freeze their unrestricted fund balance pending resolution of the ongoing investigations at their meeting last Monday.

Councilor Mary Brimer, who put forth the motion, said that it is not uncommon when there are scandals of this magnitude or potential lawsuits for governing bodies to freeze a budget and suspend excess spending until it is resolved.

“I suggested at the last meeting that we freeze the fund balance of the school until we know that it’s settled and it goes away. We resolve it that the fund balance should be the first money on the line to pay out any settlement that we might be facing. It might settle out in three months and no big deal.”

Brimer went on to say that Superintendent Phil Auger has not attended a health and wellness committee meeting in over a year, and Brimer said that the school department hasn’t held a policy meeting all year. According to Brimer, Auger has attended six DEI subcommittee meetings this year while not attending a single health and wellness committee meeting all year.

“Here’s a situation where there’s a very large liability that this town faces,” councilor Kerry McKay said. “Potentially if this goes the course that it could go, you have hundreds of students that have potentially been through this that could decide that maybe they want to come forward. Our own fund balance could be attacked.”

Councilor Katherine Anderson expressed concern that the motivations for restricting the fund balance were not only related to the pending legal liability resulting from possible lawsuits. Councilors Kerry and Brimer both referred to the DEI subcommittee and money spent on it while supporting their positions in requesting for the school committee to freeze its unrestricted funds.

“I’m a bit confused because on the one hand we say we’re going to freeze the fund balance because the town may have a certain liability, this is not a punishment, this is not about other issues and it’s strictly about the potential liability facing the town,” said Anderson. “Then I just heard a number of other issues so now I’m unsure of why we’re restricting the fund balance.    As we start bringing up other issues like DEI I can’t help but think this seems rather opportunistic.”

The money in the unrestricted fund balance is most commonly used for emergency repairs, School Committee President Gregory Blasbalg said after the yearly joint meeting between the school committee and town council earlier in the evening.

“Recent events have done nothing to change the responsibility that this community has to educate our students and to provide them with the facilities and equipment that they need to learn,” Blasbalg said. “The school department fund balance is used for maintenance, repairs and emergencies. The school department can not simply ignore all school maintenance and repairs pending litigation that hasn’t even commenced.”

In the end only McKay and Brimer supported the motion to request a freeze on these assets while the remaining three members of the council voted against it.

The school department’s budget was also discussed in more depth tonight during the annual joint meeting that marks the beginning of the finalization of the proposed school budget, said Town Manager Ralph Mollis.

The school department, Mollis said, makes up 64% of the town’s budget. He praised the strong funding and hard work that makes North Kingstown school department one of the most high performing in the state.

Superintendent Phil Auger said that the budget may be heavily affected if the legislature resets state aid. The pandemic led to changes in school enrollment all over the state and adjustments to state funds could mean less funding from the state to bolster the school department’s budget.

“With large changes in enrollment that RIDE is equating to students not being in school for whatever reason now this year… What they tried to do is smooth that number so you didn’t have huge changes because enrollment was down so much.”  said Chief Operating Officer Mary King. “They’re finding that this year, fiscal year 21-22, we’re seeing those same anomalies in some districts with wild changes in enrollment.”

Auger said that even if RIDE attempts to smooth over funding changes so districts don’t have drastic changes in their funding from this year to next, eventually the change will come if enrollment numbers continue to vary.

The remainder of the council’s meeting went smoothly with the unanimous approval of their consent agenda. This was the last public council meeting of the year. The first meeting of 2022 will be held at 7 p.m. on January 10.

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