standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — The School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a proposed $60,437,244 education budget for 2019-20.

The budget, a $2.45 million increase from the current $57,983,040 spending plan, or 4.2 percent, now moves to the town manager and will later be reviewed by the Board of Finance and the Town Council. The council has authority over the final amount.

The increase is driven largely by contractual obligations to teachers and other employees as well as  changes in the state aid formula for regular education out-of-district tuition, which is paid by the district for students who choose to attend schools in other districts.

According to a presentation made by Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau on Tuesday, $49.04 million worth of the $60 million budget proposal provides for salaries and benefits of the 584 staff members, an increase of $1.24 million. Of this, $735,000 is due to increased salary costs, $245,000 to increased pension costs, and $195,000 to increased health insurance premiums, which are projected to increase by 8 percent.

Regular education out-of-district tuition is expected to increase by $997,424 from the current $1.66 million. "A very large part of this [increase] is the out-of-district tuitions, the changing formulas, and that challenge of choice is putting significant pressure on us," Garceau said, adding that the district is looking to close a nearly $500,000 funding gap in the current budget driven by the same out-of-district tuition.

Under the proposed spending plan the following staff reductions would occur: 1.5 clerical positions, .5 custodial position and .6 of a teacher position. Garceau also proposed to add an assistant principal position at Westerly Middle School. Also, a .5 pre-K teacher position would be added because grant funding for the position has expired. The position is required  as part of a state-mandated corrective action plan.

The budget also reflects a decision of the district to stop funding some of the programming at Tower Street School Community Center. The budget defunds the district’s commitment to the center's out-of-school, before- and after-school program, which represents a $57,547 savings. Efforts will be made to make the program self-sustaining, Garceau said. The budget also reduces the district's commitment to a Parents as Teachers program by $25,000, from $97,004 to $72,004. Along with other staffing reductions and reallocations, the district's spending at the center is proposed to drop by $246,636.

"The decision to reduce by $25,000 is not something we take lightly but there's a philosophical decision that we have to come to — is that the role of the Westerly Public schools to provide social services?" Garceau asked.

A motion by committee member Marianne Nardone to reinstate the $25,000 failed by a 4-2 vote. Committee members Christine Cooke, Christine Piezzo, Rebecca Greene, and Mary Adams voted against the motion. Nardone and Diane Chiaradio Bowdy voted for the motion. Nardone said the program is critical to the town's youngest children and families in need of help.

Cooke asked that Garceau and his administration look for other funding sources for the program and said her research showed the programs are handled as social service offerings in other municipalities.

A motion to reduce Garceau's initial request by $90,000 was approved by a 4-2 vote. Adams made the motion, saying she believed Garceau could find elsewhere the funds that he had earmarked as part of the cost of hiring a new assistant principal at Westerly Middle School. Adams, Cooke, Piezzo, and Greene voted in favor of the motion, which was opposed by Chiaradio Bowdy and Nardone.

The committee's vote on Garceau's budget follows about four weeks of workshops devoted to it. In the future, Adams said, she hoped the committee started with an overview of the superintendent's proposed budget and then analyzed specific sections of the budget.

Garceau called the proposed budget a preliminary figure. "We expect to have to make some difficult decisions," he said.

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