standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — The Town Council is seeking information on what the town's financial commitment to the School Department would be if the council switched to an education budget based on per-pupil spending rather than the current maintenance of effort approach which considers the student body in the aggregate.

The council agreed by consensus during its meeting Monday to have Town Manager J. Mark Rooney provide the financial information and to arrange for a presentation by school officials on education spending.

According to Section 16-7-23 of the state's Foundation Level School Support law, "Each community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year." The budget provision also states that "A community that has a decrease in enrollment may compute maintenance of effort on a per-pupil rather than on an aggregate basis when determining its local contribution."

On Monday several councilors said they wanted the per-pupil spending data as they approach the annual municipal and schools budget development season. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau is expected to make a recommendation on the 2020-21 budget to the School Committee on Wednesday.

Councilor William Aiello requested a discussion of the maintenance of effort requirement and per-pupil spending, noting that the local education budget has increased in most years despite a decrease of 1,043 students since October 2001. The school district reported student enrollment of 2,648 students in October 2019. Westerly's current per pupil spending of $21,600 per student exceeds the state average, which is about $17,300.

On Monday Aiello said he would support a budget that is informed by the data he is seeking. "If it means a zero increase budget I could support that. If it means a reduction I could support that. If it means an increase I could support that, but I want the data," Aiello said.

Councilor Suzanne Giorno said the per-pupil spending data would be useful as the council seeks to inform residents about its budget approach.

"If we're looking and we see that we are paying so much more per pupil; then it makes it so much easier to explain to the public that we are going to level fund this year," Giorno said.

Councilor Karen Cioffi said the information would help the council make decisions.

"If you don't ask, you don't know. I do not want to be in the dark, I would like to know what it is per pupil. We keep hearing enrollment has decreased ... maybe we are giving them too much based on the formula we are using," Cioffi said.

Council President Christopher Duhamel said the school district's current per-pupil rate is driven, in part, by the district's tuition payments for students who attend out-of-district schools and acknowledged efforts by the School Department to entice students to stay in the district.

"If we can get our students back, our costs per student will go down," Duhamel said.

Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. called for simply telling the School Committee how much its budget will be.

"We'd say 'Guys, this year this is how much more we're giving you, back fill your budget to make that work and if it means layoffs, whatever it is, do it,'" Cooke said.

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