WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — A public hearing on the fiscal year 2020 Chariho schools budget will take place on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the school district.
While the proposed $52.5 million spending plan represents a 0.11 percent increase in the three towns’ combined contribution to the district, two of the towns, Richmond and especially Hopkinton, would pay higher shares because of increases in enrollment.
Hopkinton's contribution is set to rise by 3.2 percent, the result of an enrollment increase of 21 students. Richmond will pay 1.75 percent more, and Charlestown, with fewer children in the district, will pay 6.1 percent less.
The original budget, before adjustments, called for spending of $53.4 million. A further reduction of $18,210 was made after Richmond agreed to a request to allocate 340 tons of its solid waste cap to the school district, thereby allowing Chariho to take advantage of the town's lower municipal trash disposal fees at the state landfill. Charlestown denied Chariho's request, and Hopkinton, which uses the Westerly transfer station, took no action.
Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci said Chariho was grappling with cuts in state aid, which has steadily declined in recent years.
“The district is scheduled to receive $2,055,454 in state aid, which represents a decline of $75,214,” he said.
Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi has demanded further reductions to the budget, arguing that his town cannot shoulder the increase in the property tax burden, which would amount to 83 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation.
“Our tax rate is directly attributed to a reduction of state aid of $97,000 and an increase in our school bill of $605,000,” he said.
Landolfi invited Hopkinton’s members of the School Committee, Lisa Macaruso, George Abbott, Sylvia Stanley and Catherine Giusti, to the Feb. 19 council meeting to hear the town’s concerns and discuss ways that the Chariho budget might be further reduced.
“We asked them to review the school district’s use of fund balance, maintenance of effort, as well as operating expenses at their upcoming meeting,” he said. “To my knowledge, nothing was revised. Our figures indicate that there is room to reduce the operating budget based on the maintenance of effort by $399,497.”
Hopkinton’s proposed property tax increase would exceed by nearly 1 percent the 4 percent limit on tax increases imposed by the state. Landolfi said the increase would be even higher if the state does not allow the town to go over its cap this year.
“Our town is above the 4 percent tax cap by 1 percent roughly, or $162,000,” he said. “If the auditor general says no to our increase, we will have to take this $162,000 out of fund balance in addition to the $446,000 that was already taken out. I realize the bulk of our increase is due to a huge enrollment shift … but more could have been reduced to mitigate our taxpayer impact.”
Several capital projects, including the demolition of the old 1904 school building in Ashaway, have been postponed because of budget constraints.
“It is unsustainable and we will hopefully work with other member towns to find a solution,” Landolfi said.
Richmond Town Council President Gary Wright said he, too, hoped to find a solution to the annual Chariho budget controversy.
“It’s getting very old,” he said. “Each year we keep telling them ‘lower your budget’ and there’s no reason that he [Ricci] has to. There are no laws. We are at the mercy of the school district, and I don't like it. This is ongoing, and it’s not going to go away. We have to figure out something we can do.”
Charlestown Town Council President Virginia Lee could not be reached for comment by press time.
Ricci acknowledged this year’s budgeting challenges.
“This budget was particularly difficult because of the larger than normal impact on two of our towns due to enrollment shifts,” he said. “Yet, the suggestions offered by stakeholders from those towns proved to be helpful in adjusting the 2020 budget. Throughout the annual budget debate, I was reminded countless times that the quality of our program is not in question, and that the community appreciates the many opportunities available to our students.”
The budget ultimately will be subject to referendums in each town.
Also at Tuesday's hearing, residents will be asked to approve a warrant item for a new Chariho field house. The facility, which would be built with contributions from the Maddie Potts Foundation, will not require any taxpayer money, but the Chariho Act requires that the project receive approval from all three towns before it can move forward. The foundation was set up by the parents of the girls' soccer team captain, who died in 2017 after collapsing during a game.
The warrant item reads: "To grant approval for the Chariho Sports Boosters to construct a Field House on the Chariho Campus on Switch Road in Richmond, which may include a concession stand, bathrooms, and locker rooms, under the oversight of the Chariho Regional School District Committee but without the use of public funds.”
Ricci said the field house would provide badly needed facilities for athletic events.
“Visitors to the Chariho campus for outdoor events have long complained about the lack of indoor bathrooms and the current concession stand is clearly inadequate. We are grateful that the Sports Boosters and Maddie Potts Foundation are willing to proceed with this much needed project,” he said.
The hearing will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Chariho Middle School auditorium.