WESTERLY — The Board of Finance started its review of the proposed 2018-19 school budget Thursday with some members casting serious doubt on whether they could approve a spending plan of $58.7 million. As proposed by Superintendent Mark Garceau and the School Committee, that would be a 4 percent increase from the current budget.
The School Committee approved a $58.9 million budget on Jan. 31 but subsequently reduced the request by $226,000.
Kenneth J. Swain, who is returning to the board after a two-year absence, said he generally aims for an increase that is line with any annual increase to Social Security recipients. “I think you’ll find that’s a 2 percent increase. If we look at that, then we should be nowhere near 4 percent,” said Swain, who previously served on the board for 17 years.
Jay Goodman, board chairman, asked for cooperation and input from school administrators and the School Committee.
“We’re going to have to make some hard decisions here,” he said.
Goodman and Garceau also noted that Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy reduced the education budget by $600,000 in the proposed $89.2 million 2018-19 combined municipal and school budget.
Garceau said he is working to close the gap between his request and Kennedy’s proposal. One possible method under consideration, Garceau said, is for the school department to use part of its surplus to cover one-time costs.
The proposed budget now includes 10 new positions, including three that would be under contract, not classified as full school department employees. “In an era of declining enrollment new positions are a tough sell,” Goodman said, adding that a cost-benefit analysis should be considered. He also asked Garceau to consider reallocation as an alternative to new positions.
After a few years of strife between the finance board, School Committee, Town Council, and school administrators concerning an alleged lack of detail in school budget documents, Goodman praised the budget book developed by Garceau and interim Finance Director Barbara Perino, who both started their positions in July.
“I’m very impressed with the budget that was put together...it’s a big step forward,” Goodman said.
Perino explained that she met with each school principal to determine the exact number of employees at each school and also worked to ensure that the budget accurately reflects which positions are paid through grants and which are paid through local budget funds.
In past years the school department’s salary and wage accounts often finished the year with sizable surpluses. “I feel very strongly about the accuracy of the numbers put forth for salaries and benefits” in the proposed budget, Perino said.
Garceau said he was aware of the board’s concern about school budget surpluses but also said that Perino had uncovered instances in which expenditures were not accounted for in the current budget. As a result, those items now show up in the proposed budget and account for a portion of the overall proposed increase.
“I’m not quite sure the surpluses are quite what we thought they were. There’s been a lot of cleanup,” Garceau said.