standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — School officials on Wednesday reacted to cuts made by the the Town Council to their proposed 2019-20 budget by calling them "absurd and baseless" and saying they will require deep reductions in staffing.

The council this week cut the $60,437,244 budget recommended by Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and the School Committee by $1.32 million and also removed $211,794 from the school department's capital improvement budget. The capital funds had been earmarked, in part, for upgrades to the school district's technology wiring infrastructure that are needed to implement a proposed one-to-one distribution of Chromebook laptop computers to the incoming freshman class at Westerly High School.

In addition to decrying the cuts, school officials questioned this year's budget deliberation process and communications from the council.

Garceau noted that school officials first learned that Town Manager J. Mark Rooney had reduced the education budget by $1.2 million, but those funds were restored because the Town Charter prohibits the town manager from modifying that budget. The Board of Finance then cut $1 million and recommended potential areas for savings, including a more aggressive teacher early retirement effort and a harder push to slow the stream of students choosing to attend other public high schools for career and technical programs.

Garceau said the district succeeded in enticing additional retirements and that it appears fewer students will leave the district for high school in the fall.

"When the goal posts continue to move and the information isn't forthcoming, and I say this with all respect to the town leaders, it's a challenge," Garceau said.

A joint meeting between the School Committee and the Town Council, which is required by state law, was conducted in December. The law requires the president of the council to submit to the School Committee an estimate of projected revenues for the next fiscal year, including anticipated changes in the property tax base. The School Committee is required to submit to the council anticipated expenditures and projected enrollments with related staff and faculty requirements, anticipated payments to charter schools (if applicable), and any necessary or mandated changes in school programs or operations.

In characterizing the joint meeting, Garceau said, "frankly nothing about the budget was discussed. We didn't get anywhere."

Between the current budget and the proposed budget for next year, Garceau said more than 40 positions were eliminated. "We do recognize that we've had reductions in student population. Those reductions have to be met with reductions in staffing but they can't be done in one fell swoop," he said.

The superintendent also noted that he was asked to attend the Town Council's meeting on Monday to discuss the budget. "But when it came time to discuss the budget and the needs of the district, suddenly we were out of time," Garceau said.

Following the Board of Finance's recommendation, Garceau and his staff made reductions to start to accommodate the cuts recommended by the board. "But if we've got to cut over $1.3 million, that's going to be paraprofessionals and teachers. There's going to be very deep cuts," he said.

School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said the budget was a product of intense scrutiny by the committee, school staff and the Board of Finance. She said she had spoken to two members of the Town Council about their cuts. "I think it's absolutely absurd and baseless," Chiaradio Bowdy said.

Committee member Christine Cooke asked whether the Town Council has the legal authority to remove funding for specific capital projects. The council is clearly limited to making only financial reductions to the proposed operating budget. Cooke's husband, Caswell Cooke Jr., recommended removing the $211,794 for the technology wiring, saying he believed the committee could use its fund balance or surplus.

School Committee member Mary Adams questioned whether the Town Council understands that the town and school fund balances are viewed as one fund by bond rating agencies that use the size of the surplus as a factor in their analysis. The town's credit rating affects interest rates for bonding projects such as the proposed elementary school redesign project.

Barbara Perino, the school district's director of  finance and operations, noted that the district is currently basing its budget request on an estimate of how much state aid it will receive. If the district makes the council's recommended cuts and then gets less than expected from the state, it will be "almost impossible without some severe program cuts," she said.

The Town Council is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the proposed education and general government budget tonight at 6 in Council Chambers at Town Hall. A second hearing will occur later this month.

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