standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — With its 2019-20 budget bottom line in place following the Town Council's approval earlier in the week, the School Committee started developing a new spending plan on Wednesday.

The committee had proposed a $60,437,244 budget, a $2.45 million increase from the current $57,983,040 spending plan, but the council on Monday adopted a final budget that reduced the school district's budget request by $1,325,000.

In addition to the Town Council's cut, the School Committee learned this week that its state aid had been reduced, resulting in a $241,900 revenue shortfall. The state aid number could change again before the General Assembly completes the state budget. An additional challenge came in the form of transportation costs for children in foster care, which are now estimated to increase by $117,000.

Altogether the School Committee is looking at a $1,566,900 revenue gap in the 2019-20 budget, said Barbara Perino, the school district's director of finance and operations. During its meeting Wednesday the School Committee voted unanimously to approve tentative adjustments that reduced the gap to about $467,000.

The adjustments include a reduction in expenditures of $540,910 by eliminating 10 paraprofessional positions and a reduction of $215,000 based on a reduction in the anticipated increase in the cost of providing health insurance for district employees. School administrators originally anticipated the rates to increase by 8 to 10 percent but now believe the increase will be closer to 4 percent, said Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau.

Also included in the expenditure adjustment is a reduction of $102,254 to account for four additional teacher retirements. The district offered an early retirement incentive that 10 teachers accepted.

Garceau noted that while many school districts in the state are just starting their annual budget deliberations,  the Westerly district is required, by Town Charter, to submit a proposed budget to the town manager by Feb. 1. The early date makes it harder for administrators to estimate special education, out of district tuition, transportation and health insurance costs, Garceau said.

School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy has said, in recent weeks, that the committee should ask the Town Council to consider a revision to the Town Charter to push the budget date back later in the year.

Garceau said, "It's a significant reduction in our request and we're going to have to do that work. We're bound by state law to balance the budget by July 1 so we're in a difficult situation, but we'll work through it."

Committee member Christine Piezzo repeated her earlier request for examples of how teachers will leverage a proposed one-to-one laptop distribution to Westerly High School freshmen to improve lessons and learning.

"We're going to cut 10 paraprofessionals but give Chromebooks that we really have not explored deeply," Piezzo said. "It's a tough time."

Garceau said funds for the Chromebooks have been left in the budget as a placeholder pending further consideration by the School Committee.

A few committee members said they had received communications from parents who are worried about potential program cuts to accommodate the budget approved by the Town Council, including a concern that technology upgrades will not be funded.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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