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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The North Kingstown School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve Superintendent Phil Auger’s Preliminary Budget Proposal for the 2020/21 school year in preparation for the Town Council budget workshop on March 20.

“This is the first step in the process, this is not by any means the final school budget,” School Committee chairman Gregory Blasbalg said. “What will eventually happen is we’ll go into budget discussions with the town and we may have some better numbers by then but hopefully the town will give us the actual number, which we will then need to adjust ours to.”

The proposal requests an increase of 3.8 percent, or $2,044,808, over the current year’s budget while projecting a revenue increase of 3.46 percent, or $2,378,773, something which Auger said “keeps pace” with previous years, but acknowledges creates some concerns for him regarding what’s not in it.

“This budget... really does not add anything at all that we’re not already doing,” Auger said. “There’s no additional staff in this budget and I’m a little bit worried about that. There’s no contingency for increased enrollment.”

Auger said that while he would normally ask to budget for the hiring of an additional teacher or teaching assistant (TA), and that while he has places where he would like to fill in such a position, that it is not covered under the current budget, as well as several other items of note including an increase in social and emotional learning programs at the high school, a middle school-level expansion of the current LEAP program for special education students offered at Forest Park Elementary and changing start times, something which has been a popular topic of discussion and concern among many students and parents.

“We had talked about the importance of doing something with start times,” Auger said. “There’s nothing here for additional busing, there’s nothing here for any kind of additional transportation to help us to get Davisville Academy on a single start time instead of an elementary and a high school start time.”

Auger said that while he’d like to address these issues, the proposed budget increase is already at 3.8 percent and the department is capped by state law of proposing an increase over four percent.

“I’m really concerned about this budget,” Auger said. “I realize that we live in a world where people would like to feel like maybe we don’t need an increase or maybe we can keep that number really low like one or two percent. The reality that we’ve been dealing with in the years that I’ve been superintendent, and I know from many years before that, is that those kinds of numbers really set you backwards. You end up cutting a great deal when you talk about low numbers like that.”

He added that with the potential of salary increases moving at a four to five percent increase annually and healthcare costs in the same ballpark that the budget needs to be at four percent or more on an annual basis in order to keep in line with allowing the department to continue doing what they’re doing while also budgeting for any additions that may need to be made beyond the capital reserve. 

“If we know what we can bank on in numbers for capital, it really helps in our planning and it really helps in the long-term maintenance of our facilities,” Auger said. “You’re not always worried about ‘well, we would like to do these things but we’re going to have to wait until a certain date this year and then another date next year to just realize what we even have available to do,’ so how can you plan a major project to say fix a roof when you don’t know if you’re going to even have the money to do it this year or the following year, so that’s what I’m concerned about.”

“I’m trying to be as tight about this (budget) as I can because I know that we’re talking about taxpayer money here and people don’t like to see their taxes going up at a high pace, I get it, but these are the kinds of numbers that I feel need to continue and I understand that there may be some desire to cut back a little bit in certain areas and to make this number lower than $2 million or 3.8 percent, but I would caution in doing so,” Auger added. “This conversation’s not done tonight, it’s going to go to the Town Council. There will be a lot of discussion with them and I’m really worried that I’m going to need every dollar I can get to do what we’re doing this year but also to try to address some of these other concerns as well and anything that we cut tonight I don’t see us getting back, so that’s a concern for me.”

North Kingstown School Department Chief Operating Officer Mary King said an important contribution to their budget that often goes overlooked is the $3.6 million in tuition they collect from out-of-district students who attend NKHS for its Career and Technical Education programs, a revenue fund which prospective legislation at the State House could put in danger if it cuts down on the number of said students.

“My perspective is if we didn’t have that money, we’d be $3.6 million short and that’s a huge amount of money that I had really hoped when we first started implementing that, that we were going to be able to throw some of that to our fund balance so we could do some capital and we could save some money to refresh those programs,” King said.

King praised the efforts of Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri during her time as principal of the high school in finding and applying for grants but acknowledged that no school department can rely upon such funds for the long term, as grants run out and stressed recognition of the contributions that the CTE program brings to the district.

Following those discussions, Blasbalg brought forward to a vote the approval of the budget in stages, all of which were approved unanimously in order have numbers to present and work with the Town Council on in March. For grant funding, $2,335,600 was accepted and approved while the general funding needed for the department sat at $71,090,551, of which $55,855,551 is appropriated by the Town of North Kingstown. 

The enterprise fund totaled $1,105,500, with $975,500 coming from food service, $25,000 for the computer repair and maintenance fund, $45,000 in gate receipts from school sporting events and $60,000 from summer sports camps. 

Of those funds, King noted that food service was looking at “possibly a small deficit” that would need to be funded by the department and acknowledged that while it would be “very small,” that it would probably not revert back into the black and the department would need to find a way to deal with it, though that they are in a better position than many school departments across Rhode Island in that aspect. 

Blasbalg reminded fellow committee members and attendees that the numbers discussed were still all preliminary and that things could change.

“It is so early in our process that these numbers are our best guess right now,” Blasbalg said. “There are so many parts of this equation that we do not know the numbers on, not the least of which is charter school enrollments. They have a huge impact on our budget, they may have an even bigger impact on our budget this year than in other years.”

School Committee Vice Chairman Bob Jones noted that there are two area charter schools planning on major expansions of their student body, and with the lottery for charter school students happening on March 1 there is no way for them to predict how that’ll affect their budget numbers.

“Well I’ve said it for five or six years now without much success to the Charter Review Commission (that) it’s almost impossible to set an accurate number, at least prior to (March 1),” Jones said. “There’s some things I have questions on and some things I’d like to have a discussion about changing some priorities that the superintendent has, but until we have some better numbers on things that can really drive it, then that would be an exercise of futility at this point, so I think passing this number doesn’t necessarily mean total agreement but I think it reflects for where we’re at.”

Jones expressed his frustration with the process but showed his appreciation to the school department for their work on getting out these numbers even with the other factors involved and said there’s “lots more discussion” to be had in the future on the 2020/21 budget.

In other events of the meeting, Auger asked for and received $25,000 already budgeted for this year for the first phase of a “major refurbishment” of the NKHS library over the next year to turn it into more of a modern facility reflecting the needs of students.

For phase one, much of the work would go towards improving lighting, adding furniture and create an area to honor distinguished alumni of the high school, starting with the late Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the former commander of the 8th Army stationed in South Korea who passed away in 2018.

“His family asked through Sen. (Jack) Reed’s office to do some sort of memorial at North Kingstown High School on his behalf and we’re happy to do that and it looks like we’re going to be settling on a date on Memorial Day,” Auger said, adding that after the initial ceremony and dedication he’ll hope to induct roughly one to two alumni into the hall each coming year, while more information on the ceremony honoring Vandal would be forthcoming. 

The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for March 10 at 7 p.m. at the North Kingstown School Department Administration Building at 100 Romano Vineyard Way.

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