WOOD RIVER JCT. — Participants in Tuesday’s public hearing on the Chariho School District’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget asked the School Committee to further reduce the fund balance and expressed concerns about funds allocated to the possible consolidation of the four elementary schools.
The hour-long hearing, which was punctuated by a few contentious exchanges, was moderated by Charlestown Town Moderator Charles Beck.
The proposed operating budget is $54.7 million, a 2.2% increase. After receiving requests from the towns to lower the fund balance, or surplus, the School Committee reduced it to 2.25%, lowering the three towns' contributions by about $135,000 each. The committee declined to further reduce the fund balance to 2%, citing the uncertain financial situation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopkinton resident Barbara Capalbo asked the committee to reconsider a further reduction in light of a pledge of more federal financial aid during the pandemic.
“They are already putting $1.3 billion into schools across the country, and I’m sure you’ll get your percentage,” she said. “… I would like you to take a look at that budget again. 2.0% instead of 2.25. I don’t think that’s a huge cut for you,” she said. “You’ve always been able to work well with the 2% over the last several years and I don’t think that would be a problem again …. We have citizens who have lost their jobs and are having enough problems and would like the taxes as low as possible.”
Martha Vida of Hope Valley said she wanted a full, independent audit of the school district’s finances and described the current annual audit as insufficient.
“Every year, Chariho’s administration gives numbers to the auditor and the auditor writes a report,” she said. “It is not backed up by the auditor’s personal review of checks written, which is called a checkbook audit, the invoices, contracts, etcetera. So we cannot say we have an annual audit. We have not had a true audit from what, the 1950s to today.”
Former Hopkinton School Committee member Georgia Ure wanted to know how much of the proposed budget had been allocated to planning the consolidation of the district’s elementary schools. The proposal to build a single, large elementary school to replace the four existing schools under the state's "newer and fewer" initiative has been endorsed by the School Committee but would still have to be approved by voters in the three towns.
“Are there any funds in this proposed budget that will be used for planning, drawing architectural sketches, evaluating options moving forward on the costly project of constructing a huge factory in the field that the public finds objectionable for our youngest and smallest students?” she asked.
Committee Chair Linda Lyall replied that the consolidation would be on the March 9 School Committee agenda.
“Whatever has been done to date will be shared with the public and then the public will have a chance to comment,” she said.
Ure wanted to discuss the disadvantages of a single large school, but she was informed by Beck that the topic was not on the meeting agenda and that further discussion would constitute a violation of the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act.
“Georgia, could you present that argument at the next meeting? We’re talking about line item budgets in the current budget,” he said.
Ure attempted to continue to speak, but district clerk Donna Sieczkiewicz intervened.
“I have to call for a point of order,” she said. “We are violating the Open Meetings Act, and I am not violating the Open Meetings Act. We can’t discuss it. It’s not on the agenda.”
Director of Finance Ned Draper explained that the capital budget in the proposed spending plan would remain the same regardless of whether the district decided to pursue the school consolidation.
"The capital budget will not change whether it be newer and fewer or the original budget submission that was for the existing schools,” he said. “So the amount budgeted for capital investment in our schools is the same regardless of which direction we go in. That number will remain the same for fiscal year ’22."
Committee members William Day of Richmond and George Abbott of Hopkinton supported Ure’s attempts to ask questions about funds being allocated to a single, new school.
“How much money is being spent for preliminary work, architectural or otherwise, on the new large school?” Abbott asked.
Draper explained that funds had been set aside to possibly fund the new school planning, but they could also be used to maintain the existing school buildings.
“Whether that money will actually be spent on those specific items you noted, member Abbott, remains to be seen but that is the amount that would be reallocated from the existing projects into that.”
Over the next five years, Draper noted that simply maintaining the eight Chariho schools would cost more than $10 million.
“When you look at that on a five-year basis, that’s in the $2 million a year range, so we have to justify to RIDE [Rhode Island Department of Education] that spending, and the capital budget you see before you at $2.5 [million] is working towards that obligation,” he said. “So whether we do that in the format of a newer and fewer, or we do that with our existing infrastructure, we still have to maintain the buildings.”
Charlestown resident and former School Committee member Ronald Areglado cautioned the committee against bowing to pressure to further reduce the fund balance.
“We have to be careful, because costs are going to be very, very difficult to ascertain as we go forward,” he said. “There are many unknowns as to what’s going to have to happen when schools reopen. So I would be remiss as a resident to say that we should cut this budget. I would rather have that fund balance and potentially give it back, to some degree knowing that we’d secured ourselves.”
The School Committee will discuss the school consolidation option at its next meeting on March 9, and the budget referendum will take place on April 6.