WOOD RIVER JCT. — Voters in the three Chariho Regional School District towns approved the $54.7 million 2021-22 budget by a slim 77-vote margin at a referendum held Tuesday.
The total vote across Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton was 552-475 to approve the spending plan. Charlestown voted 172-44 to approve, Richmond voted 209-178 to approve, and Hopkinton rejected the spending plan by a margin of 253-171.
Chariho School Committee chairwoman Linda Lyall said she was pleased with the results, despite the low voter turnout.
“I'm glad that people came out to vote because I think it's important to get as many people to vote as possible,” Lyall said. “The more people who vote, the more information we have to work forward as a committee.”
Chariho Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard said that she was relieved and excited to see the approval of the budget.
“The focus of our budget is really to continue the good work that Chariho has a history of doing,” Picard said. “Our entire school committee has worked tirelessly to keep the quality of instruction, professional learning, and the support to our families as top priorities in our services.”
The approved $54.7 million operating budget is a 2.2% increase from last year’s budget.
All three towns will see increases in their contributions to the school district: Charlestown’s contribution of $13.5 million is an increase of 1.4%; Richmond will pay $20.6 million, which is a 2.7% increase; and Hopkinton will see an increase of 2.3% with a total contribution of $20.6 million.
Although some taxpayers expressed their concerns about the increases, Picard felt that the school budget was fair.
“While we know everyone's struggling financially, we really tried our best to keep our budget very conservative, but allow us what was necessary to keep our focus on our vision.”
She added, “Our hope is that the taxpayers who did vote 'no' will ask the questions and hopefully see that the work that we do in Chariho is going to be thoughtful, invested in the community, and focused on students.”
The original proposal for the budget was $55.4 million, but was reduced to $54.7 million after Picard was able to cut some expenses in January. The School Committee also reduced the fund balance, or surplus, from 2.5% to 2.25%.
There were requests made by some town residents to reduce the fund balance to 2%, but the School Committee declined to do so, citing the uncertain financial situation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything it has definitely taught us that we need to be prepared, be able to be flexible, and pivot as quickly as necessary,” Picard said.
Picard also said the district’s “newer and fewer” elementary school initiative, which is still in its beginning stages, may have caused some confusion about this budget. She encourages all residents who have questions to reach out to the district directly.
This budget referendum vote did not include a vote on plans for a new elementary school. The district allocated approximately $250,000 in this budget to meet the Rhode Island Department of Education’s requirements for the second stage of a Necessity for School Construction project, according to school officials. If voters approve a project in April 2022, this money will be reimbursed up to 80% by the state.
Since the start of this school year, the Chariho school district has provided primarily in-person instruction. Lyall said the district’s commitment to in-person instruction has benefited the towns.
“We did keep our schools open and that was important,” Lyall said. “It kept the towns going. People could get back to work and [we could provide] a little bit of normalcy for our kids.”
Picard said the approval of the school budget allows the school district to continue supporting students and meeting their needs.
“We've learned with the pandemic that you can adequately shift when necessary,” Picard said. “The passing of the budget allows us to continue to work forward.”