WESTERLY — Teacher layoffs might be an inevitable outcome of reductions to the proposed 2019-20 education budget recommended by the Board of Finance, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said Thursday.
The board has tentatively asked Garceau and the School Committee to prepare for a recommended reduction of $1.3 million to their proposed operating budget for 2019-20. The budget approved by the School Committee calls for spending $60,437,244, an increase of $2.45 million from the current $57,983,040 budget. Of the $2.45 million, about $1.2 million, or about half of the proposed increase, is driven by contractual obligations.
The finance board acts in an advisory role to the Town Council, which has authority on the final budget amounts for both the town and the school district.
Garceau told the finance board at a budget workshop Thursday night that school officials are considering commissioning an audit of the district's special education services to determine if spending for those services is appropriate or whether it could be reduced. He also said it is possible that the district could leave some positions unfilled after anticipated retirements. Potential shared service arrangements with the town for human resources and information technology services could also produce savings, he said.
Garceau said he would also discuss the finance board's suggestion that a more aggressive teacher retirement incentive be pursued.
"The only way we can do this is through staffing. It's the only place where going to come up with that kind of money," Garceau said.
The superintendent also discussed the potential consequences of reducing the number of teachers. There are "serious ramifications as we move down and a negative impact on instruction," he said. Specifically, he said, class sizes increase and younger teachers are let go during layoffs.
The finance board recommended that the School Committee use $500,000 of its fund balance to provide incentives for teachers nearing retirement to actually retire. Garceau said six teachers had already agreed to take a $30,000 incentive to retire after the current school year. Increasing the incentive might cause additional teachers to retire but Garceau said the School Committee would have to agree and set parameters.
Barbara Perino, the district's director of finance and operations, asked for careful consideration of the use of the fund balance, noting that bond rating agencies and other financial institutions look at the consolidated fund balance of both the town and the school department when determining the financial health of the town. The size of the fund balance is also used to help determine interest rates when the town borrows money for school construction, roads, and other infrastructure projects.
In February, Town Manager J. Mark Rooney presented a $96.76 million budget proposal that covered both the municipality and the schools for 2019-20. That plan reduced Garceau's budget by about $1.2 million. The proposed combined budget now stands at $97.9 million after Rooney's cut was restored. The finance board is currently working toward a total reduction, between the school and the municipal side of the budget, of about $2.6 million.
Finance Board Chairman Kenneth J. Swain and other members have indicated they hope to limit a potential increase in the tax levy to a 2.81 percent increase.