standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — A new itinerant early childhood program and the elimination of a fifth-grade teacher position are two items to emerge so far in the early stages of the School Committee 's work on the 2020-21 education budget.

So far the committee has committed parts of two meetings to the budget and is scheduled to spend about the same amount of time this week. Westerly High School Principal Michael Hobin discussed using the equivalent of a half-time pre-school teacher to start the itinerant early childhood program. Teachers in the program, who have special education certification, would go to local pre-schools and work with teachers there to help children with disabilities. The program is approved by the state Department of Education.

"The goal is to prevent students from falling behind so they enter kindergarten on grade level," Hobin said.

Helping to ensure children are prepared for kindergarten positions them for an important milestone — reading on grade level by third grade — that Hobin said is a strong predictor of how a student will perform for the rest of her academic career.

School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she liked the goal of the program.

"This is why I'm a proponent of some of the programs at Tower Street because they are preventative services," she said. She was referring to several before- and after-school programs offered in recent years at Tower Street School Community Center.

Committee member Kristen Sweeney praised the proposal as "proactive and forward-moving" and suggested tracking the progress of children who are selected to participate.

There are currently 213 fifth-grade students at Westerly Middle School, but based on current fourth-grade enrollment, the fifth grade will shrink to an estimated 176 students. As a result of the shrinking enrollment, Paula Fusco, the school's principal, is proposing reducing the number of fifth-grade teachers at the school by one.

The school currently uses a team of four teachers, a team of three teachers, and a team of two teachers for fifth grade. Fusco said she would work with other administrators at the school to determine the best distribution of fifth-grade teachers next year.

The fifth grade is expected to be similarly small in 2021-22 but is estimated to bump back up in 2022-23, which may necessitate adding a fifth-grade teacher at that time, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said.

During the committee's first budget workshop on Jan. 2, the School Committee looked at broader budget topics, including one that comes up most years.

"One thing I'm going to struggle with this cycle is that there are constant questions in the community about our cost per student," School Committee member Mary Adams said.

At  $21,600 per student, Westerly exceeds the state average of about $17,300.

"I would like to come away with why that’s necessary. I know that we broadly say contracts ... I really can't get a good grip on why we would spend more than 12 other school districts" in the state, Adams said.

Adams also asked for a "bottom up" approach by which school officials start at zero and determine how much spending is needed rather than starting with the previous year's budget.

"I'd like to understand why we spend so much more than peer communities. I think we owe the community an explanation and especially in light of the bond failing. I think there may have been a connection there," Adams said, referring to the $71.4 school building project that was voted down in October.

Garceau said one contributing factor is connected to the number of Westerly students who attend Chariho High School rather than Westerly High School. The district pays the students' tuition but is not allowed to count those students as part of the student census that state education aid is based on. "We get hit twice there and that is a significant contributor to our per-pupil cost," Garceau said.

Narragansett, which faces a similar dilemma with students attending an out-of-district school, also has a high per-student cost ratio, Garceau said.

Committee member Christine Cooke noted that the Town Council did not offer the committee a firm budget figure or percentage increase when asked during a joint meeting of the two bodies in December.

The Town Charter requires Garceau to submit a proposed budget to the town manager no later than the first Monday in March. The budget deadline is a month later than it was previously. Voters approved the later date in a referendum question in October.

The later date is intended to give school and town officials a better understanding of the annual state budget and other financial variables.

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