January 12, 2017 12:58AM
By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND
Sun Staff Writer
WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — With an increase of 3 percent over last year, the proposed $57. 2 million Chariho schools budget was a cause for consternation at the Omnibus meeting Wednesday.
Members of the Chariho School Committee, officials from Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton, and a large contingent of parents attended the annual meeting, which is required under the Chariho Act. State legislators in attendance included Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, Charlestown; Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, Richmond, Charlestown; Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, Westerly; Rep. Justin Price, R-Richmond, Hopkinton; and Blake Filippi, R-Charlestown, Westerly.
For the past two years, the annual gathering has focused on the budget, and this year, participants had plenty to say about it. The three Chariho towns will feel the pain of increased contributions to the district. Richmond, which has seen the greatest increase in enrollment, will see a 5.8 percent increase. Hopkinton will face a 2.4 percent increase, and Charlestown will see an increase of 1.5 percent.
The school committee managed to shave approximately $54,000 from the spending plan at Tuesday’s budget meeting. Members lowered the $417,000 fuel oil expense by $50,000 and they agreed to forgo their stipends, saving an additional $24,250.
Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci said an 18 percent increase in employee health benefit costs is the most significant factor in the budget increase. The district is also entering contract negotiations with its teachers, and revenues from the career and technical program have declined by approximately $275,000, the result of increasing competition from other school districts offering similar programs.
Hopkinton Town Council member Sylvia Thompson asked whether the money the district saved by switching from MacBooks to less expensive Chromebooks could be put back into the budget this year instead of being used to expand the 1:1 initiative to the lower grades.
“What I would like to suggest in light of this devastating one of the towns of the district, is that the school committee consider looking back at this and deciding that you don’t continue the accelerated plan. Give Richmond a break and cut out that money that you were planning on using,” she said.
The discussion continued, with some people demanding that the budget undergo deep cuts, while others said they were willing to shoulder a higher tax burden if it meant keeping class sizes from growing.
Richmond parent Filipa Bryson said it is important to maintain the quality of education.
“I for one, as a Richmond resident, don’t mind an increase in my taxes if it means that my children will continue to get the quality of education that we value in Richmond,” she said.
Hopkinton councilor Barbara Capalbo told the committee to cut at least $800,000 from the plan.
“The extent of this budget is more than most of the towns can handle, and I would like you as a school committee to please look at trying to cut at least $800,000 out of the budget, and I would prefer $1.2 million,” she said.
Price promised that he and other legislators would work to improve the school district’s finances.
“My colleagues and I at the state legislature are definitely concerned about the issues in the Chariho district and the finances that are involved,” he said.
Kennedy and Algiere also pledged to support the district, but Kennedy conceded there is little they can do about Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.
“There’s no question that he marches to his own drum,” Kennedy said. “He’s not appointed by the legislature. He is appointed by Governor Raimondo to that position.”
“I can assure you that the men and women who are here today from the legislature understand the concerns that are being raised by you that deal directly with the state,” Algiere said. “We’re going to try our darndest.”