The key moment during Monday night’s South Kingstown Town Council meeting was when Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo stated that if the referendum to reduce the property tax transfer to the school district passes on June 6th, your property taxes for this coming year will go down to $10.85 per thousand. That’s the message opponents of this referendum are trying every way possible to discredit. His statement also negates what SKSD Superintendent Mark Prince wrote in his May 17th letter to the community, that level funding the district’s FY 2023-24 budget “means that there is no additional cost to the taxpayer.” That’s an untruth, pure and simple, because if the referendum fails, the tax rate will increase from this year’s $10.95 per thousand to $11.07, and your property tax bill with it.
The core principle behind the referendum is addressed in a section of RI General Law § 16-7 and Foundation Level School Support. SECTION § 16-7-23 of deals with Community requirements — Adequate minimum budget provision. Part (a) says: The school committee’s budget…shall provide…an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state. Each community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year, except for ... a community that has a decrease in enrollment may compute maintenance of effort on a per-pupil rather than on an aggregate basis when determining its local contribution.”
Those 26 words were added to the law in 1998 for communities like South Kingstown, which has watched its enrollment plummet 42 percent, from 4,344 in 2002 to today’s 2,509. It allows communities to use the year-to-year drop in enrollment to reset the number on which the following year’s budget is based. The SK Town Council has never used this provision in State law to help contain our per-pupil-expense (PPE) from increasing.
As this district’s student population cratered, our school committees “slow-walked” consolidation, failing repeatedly to reduce the workforce in proportion to our enrollment. The last time SK took a school off-line was in 2006 when South Road Elementary closed. That was 1,403 students ago. For this district to get right-sized, our exceptionally low student-to-FTE (full-time-employee) ratio of 5.7:1 must rise.
This year’s $69 million school budget and its accompanying $27,775 PPE (2nd highest for a K-12 district in RI) is unjustified for a district with 2,500 students. When the announced reductions to 404.1 FTE occur this summer, and our ratio rises to 6.0:1, we will still have too many employees for this September’s NESDEC forecast of 2,455 students. That’s the purpose of this referendum.
It’s high time our elected leaders stop treating taxpayers like cash cows. If the Town Council and School Committee would work together and craft a plan to get our student-to-FTE ratio to 7.0:1 by the day the new SKHS on School Street opens its doors, the accrued savings would off-set most if not all of the projected tax rate increases from our $125M bonded debt. That’s a win-win in my book and would make this the first and last referendum you’ll see.
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