WOOD RIVER JCT. — Members of the Chariho School Committee shaved $351,553 from the proposed 2021 schools budget Tuesday, and there are more reductions to come.
Operating budget reductions ranged from reducing stipends for coaches and teachers to reducing the purchases of library supplies for Charlestown Elementary School.
The capital budget was reduced by $252,000, a cut that was largely the result of splitting the funding for a paving project at the Charlestown school into fiscal years 2021 and 2022.
At the end of the workshop, the proposed spending plan stood at $55 million, a 4.5% increase over the current year's budget of $52.4 million.
With Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi and Charlestown council member Deborah Carney looking on, the increases in the contributions of the three towns were reduced as a result of the cuts in the operating budget.
Charlestown’s increase went from 3.1% to 2.5%; Richmond’s went from 4.6% to 3.9%; and Hopkinton’s increase was reduced from 7.1% to 6.6%.
The committee also considered the possibility of reducing the district’s undesignated fund balance from 3% to 2%, which would save the district close to $560,000.
The fund balance reduction was supported by Landolfi, who said that in his town, the proposed budget would result in a property tax increase of about $500 for a house valued at $300,000. He also reminded the committee that he was not prepared to exceed the state property tax increase cap of 4%.
“We needed about $1.3 million in reductions to keep us at 4% or less, OK?” Landolfi said. “From a council perspective, we need reductions, and we don’t need excuses … The discussion’s long gone. We cannot support an almost $1.2 million increase.”
Charlestown committee member Craig Louzon took exception to Landolfi’s statement.
“Sir, we listened to you last year and the way you delivered it didn’t sit well with a lot of us up here,” he told Landolfi. “I really don’t appreciate the tone of what you’re telling us right now.”
Committee Chairman Ryan Callahan intervened to prevent the exchange from escalating.
“I do not want this to get out of hand,” he said.
With some committee members, including Hopkinton member Catherine Giusti, concerned about reducing the fund balance because of what that might mean for future budgets, the decision was deferred until the committee had a chance to make reductions in other areas.
Hopkinton resident Luann McCormick asked the committee what would happen if the budget reached a level where a town could not pay its share.
“We’ve already had significant crises in Hopkinton, based on a desperate search for funding, and the offshoots of that that it’s caused in our town,” she said, referring to the ongoing commercial solar energy controversy. “…So my question is, what happens when and if you get to a point where one or another of the towns literally cannot afford the budget?”
Calahan said he did not know what would happen. “It does sound as if we’re approaching that point within this budget cycle, but honestly, I don’t know,” he said.
Hopkinton committee member Lisa Macaruso said the possibility still exists of reopening the Chariho Act, which determines the district funding formula, although all three towns must agree to reopening the act and Charlestown has been reluctant to do so.
Macaruso also brought up the idea, which Hopkinton has resisted, of consolidating the two elementary schools in that town. State funding might be available under the “newer and fewer” school building initiative.
“To look at something like Hopkinton, where we’re maintaining two buildings and two schools for a small amount of children, relatively, and each of the other towns have one school,” she said. “We could look at some big ideas and really take some big cuts out of salaries, benefits, maintenance, custodial, by being willing to explore some of the reimbursable funds that are going to be available to us.”
Hopkinton committee member George Abbott suggested that litigation might be the only solution. “Another option for the towns would be … to sue the district,” he said.
Landolfi said he was pleased to see the initial cuts, but added that they were not nearly enough. He noted that he was hoping the committee would approve the fund balance reduction.
“It’s a good start,” he said. “We need a little bit more. They seem to be engaged in reduction mode, which is good, because we need it, because we can’t afford it.”
The next budget workshop will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m.