standing Chariho High School

Chariho High School. Sun file photo

RICHMOND — When voters take to the polls on Thursday to vote a second time on the proposed 2022-23 budget for the Chariho Regional School District, they will be asked to approve a $55.23 million budget that would amount to a 0.96% increase in spending over the previous fiscal year.

If Rhode Island were to cover their end of transportation funding, a $590,584 line item that the governor has proposed cutting, the district’s request would already fall to a zero increase — and would be done without having to consider an option that would involve reductions in staffing.

“This is just one of several financial challenges we are facing as a regional school district in Rhode Island,” Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard said Tuesday. “We may see a return of those funds, and (state) Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy has been working to see them restored, but we won’t know if that will happen until June. So we must move forward with the assumption that those aren’t going to be approved.”

The struggle isn’t unique to Chariho, according to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, which published its third in RIPEC’s series on municipal finance last week.

The council’s latest analysis determined that the overhaul of the state’s education finance system a decade ago “has been successful in increasing the state’s share of overall education revenues” and increasing aid to poorer districts. Despite efforts to make education funding more equitable, however, some of Rhode Island’s poorest districts are still among those with the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state.

While the state invested considerably in education, ranking ninth in the U.S. in per-pupil spending at $19,169 per student on average, RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase noted that there is still a need to increase its share of education revenues and consider further changes to the state formula.

“Despite the growth in state investment in education, Rhode Island’s system is still more reliant on local revenue than the nation overall,” the report states. “The state should enact reforms to the funding formula with the aim of establishing a roughly even balance of state and local revenues, consistent with the education revenue mix nationwide.”

Chariho is an example of why a change is needed.

In Hopkinton, residents were encouraged to attend the annual Town Financial Meeting on Tuesday evening to take part in discussions regarding a proposed 2022-23 fiscal plan that would represent a 1.6% increase in overall spending and raise the tax rate by 4 cents.

As a result of the town’s share of funding for the Chariho School District, 76% of the proposed $28.12 million combined general government, education and capital expenditures would be dedicated to the school district. That is actually down from the prior year, when education accounted for how 77% of taxpayer dollars were spent on schools.

The report indicates that the state should be working toward sharing more of that burden and officials agree. Members of the town councils in both Hopkinton and Charlestown have voted in recent weeks to call on the state to take on its share of the funding. The School Committee is expected to pass a similar resolution at its next meeting.

Picard said one example of how changes could be made is the way the state handles tuition in special education cases. If a student is removed from a home by the Department of Children, Youth and Families and therefore relocated outside the district, for example, the district currently remains responsible for maintaining costs for that student’s education.

It’s a variation from neighboring states, which supply the funding for such students in order to avoid placing unnecessary burden on local taxpayers.

“These are costs that are hard to plan for, and obligations we cannot change,” Picard said. “In Massachusetts and Connecticut, these costs are covered by the state. That type of change would make a major difference.”

In the meantime, Picard said the district was going to work toward improving efficiencies and work to increase the value of every dollar spent. Chariho currently ranks 18th out of 36 districts in terms of per-pupil spending, data shows, but Picard said she is more concerned with “getting the most bang for the buck” than the district’s ranking.

Chariho High School performed very well in the latest evaluations published in the U.S. News & World Report, increasing its state ranking from 10th to 9th overall.

The district’s three elementary schools all finished within the top 10 in state rankings in 2021 and Chariho Middle School was ranked 25th in the state. U.S. News & World Report has not released 2022 middle school or elementary rankings for Rhode Island.

Picard said the School Committee and district administration remains committed to improving efficiencies, and met last week with Hopkinton resident Tyler Champlin after he asked to sit with district staff to discuss finances. The meeting was described as “productive,” and Champlin has publicly stated at recent School Committee meetings that he is committed to working with the district to find means of cutting expenses without eliminating staff, for the taxpayers benefit.

The district is willing “to open the books” and work with anyone who may have ideas on how to improve operations and efficiency, Picard said, but said efforts to cut further at this stage of the budget process would inevitably have to lead to staff reductions in the coming year.

“When it comes to finances, we can always do things better, and we are always working to,” Picard said. “It seems there is this unfortunate narrative that there are other cuts we could make here without impacting staff. As things stand right now, that just isn’t the case.”

The Chariho budget referendum on Thursday will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with eligible voters in Charlestown, Hopkinton and Richmond each able to vote at their respective town halls. For more information, including budget details and frequently asked questions, visit the Chariho website at www.chariho.k12.ri.us.

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