"Misunderstood" 2018-19 Operating Budget Approved with School Cuts
Impassioned Pleas by Beauchaine, Monteiro, School Board to No Avail
Citing "confusion" and "misunderstandings," the East Providence City Council held a public budget hearing Thursday, October 25,2018 and eventually adopted a budget with a $200,000 cut to the school department. Council members Robert Britto, Anna Sousa and Brian Faria voted for the budget with the school cuts. Members James Briden and Joe Botelho voted against this measure.
The City Council initially discussed budget passage on October 16th. An action to cut the school department budget by some $250,000 had not been well received by school officials. The council also balked at acting manager Parella's allocation of $20,000 for department head salary increases. Parella's initial budget called for a tax increase of 2.9% with a $100,000 school cut and a $343,000 city side cut but was adjusted down to 1.6% increase. "I look at the last six years and I think the city has done a very good job and as a council we've done very well when it comes to budgets. We started with a 2.9% and after significant cuts we have set a rate of 1.59%," said Councilman-at-Large and Mayor James Briden.
"I don't think that the cuts we've made have contributed to the same things that caused the state budget commission to come here in the past. They are responsible cuts, not increasing the size of government. It's how we follow the Budget Commission. Our audit reports are very positive," said Briden during an October budget hearing.
During the October 25th hearing, Ward One councilman Robert Britto said that the lower tax rate was acceptable. "We have continuously increased our taxes over the years at a burden to our taxpayers. 2.9% to 2.1% to 1.59% is fairly good," said Britto. "Let's keep our eye on target here and continue to go down the path that the Budget Commission set for us years ago. We're starting to see infrastructure improvements, sidewalks, roads, water tower, etc.," added Britto. Britto also suggested that monies earmarked for parks and recreation from Bold Point be re-assigned to parks and recreation. "It shouldn't be in the general fund."
"Here is what I don't understand," retorted Ward Three councilman Joseph Botelho. "Several comments tonight reference the budget commission actions. Yet we have a representative of the budget commission sitting here tonight (Paul Luba) who has put his stamp of approval on the City Manager's budget. How can we say that the commission did a good job and agree but also disagree with their representative, Paul Luba," asked Botelho. Botelho chided his colleagues, "Just make an argument that is consistent and make sense."
However council members admitted to confusion and lack of communication as a reason for the school department being cut beyond what school officials feel is workable. Craig Enos, school department finance manager told the council that critical areas such as transportation and special services will suffer with the proposed cuts. "The DCYF has made us a district of origin for 15 new students and we transport 85 homeless students. Our numbers in these areas can increase at any time," he said. Enos also said that district software and hardware needs would be impacted by the cuts.
Ward Four school committee member Jessica Beauchaine told the council that "we didn't pass the budget numbers because we don't feel it is right to take the funding from children. This all started when our schools were underfunded years ago. Blame who you want but our community rallies together when needed. I don't want to go back to those days," Beauchaine said. "We can't find any more areas to cut. Eighty-five homeless children go to school here. Things change every day. Hundreds of people have rallied to support things like Middle School sports and the arts. Our community supports education," she said.
Joining Beauchaine at the podium was School Committee member Joel Monteiro. Answering a council question about who made the specific cuts, Monteiro said that "you (council) forced our hands to roll the dice. We can't run a school system with a deficit by state law. Some items are over budgeted for protection. Special education and transportation are padded to cover surprises," Monteiro said. "Areas not fixed have a little flexibility. We'll remove that padding now and keep our fingers crossed." History shows that even one student with special needs moving into the district can cost thousands of un-budgeted dollars. "Our request to the council is for the City Manager's original budget with the $100,000 cut. Less than 40% (city appropriation) going to the schools is embarrassing," said Monteiro.
"I agree," Britto told Monteiro, "but this is what was submitted to us. "After these cuts were made, I never heard from anyone. The cut to schools is really $200,000 not $250,000 because $50,000 is being absorbed by the police department for a school resource officer. We wanted to reduce the tax increase to 1.59% from over 2%. We didn't say where to cut from, that was up to the city manager and department heads. They work that out," said Britto.
In the end, the council approved a motion by Councilman Brian Faria and seconded by Councilman Britto to pass a budget with a 1.59% tax increase. A motion by Botelho and seconded by Mayor Briden to accept the city manager's original budget with a 2.9% increase was defeated. Faria, Britto and Sousa voted to approve the 1.59% increase. Botelho and Briden voted to support the 2.9% budget.
"We received the budget from the school department in July. I thought it was a good budget then and the school officials got it to us in plenty of time. I don't understand the confusion here," said Botelho.
"There was no question about the budget from schools. The city manager was to make cuts with department heads. There was no concern in July, August or September when it was reduced. I didn't hear from anyone until recently," said Britto.
Rumford resident and parent of two students, Samantha Burnett told the council that "the city needs to see more communication between the council and school committee. This could have been avoided," Burnett said. When told that there had been sufficient communication by both the council and school committee, Burnett responded, "then why are we here? Why are we having this discussion about mis-communication?"
"There is only so much money," said Manager Parella. "You can have all the communication you want but it comes down to what you want the tax rate to be," he added.
School committee member Tony Ferreira, in an apparent criticism of school administration, said that he wasn't happy with when he received the cuts. "We weren't informed that the Superintendent of schools had agreed to any cuts. We didn't get these cuts in a timely manner," said an annoyed Ferreira. "We only got this last week," he said.
"Because the Council waited until last minute to approve their budget, the schools received a $250K decrease to our budget request. I’m disappointed with the lack of knowledge of their own budget, that they couldn’t do better for our children. We are one of the lowest funded districts in the state as a percentage of local tax dollar allocation," said school committee member Joel Monteiro after the council meeting.
"The reduction will take away from technology, instructional software for students and staff, and reduce our special education budget. We must truly begin to value our schools more. They determine the health of any community and local economy. We are getting no greater return on our dollar anywhere than we are in the school department," said an earlier Monteiro blog.
Also commenting was Ward Three school committee member Nathan Cahoon. Cahoon is moving from the school board to the Ward Three city council seat after the November 6th election. Cahoon (unopposed in November) will take over for Joe Botelho who is not seeking re-election. "For 4 years, I've served on the School Committee. For 4 years, I've worked with a great team to submit responsible budgets to the City Council, well in advance of the need date. For four years, I've hoped for meaningful discourse between the City Council and the SC to smooth out the edges of the budget. And in that four years, it's never happened. We always get stuck with a last second adjustment, after the city finally gets around to finalizing their side of the budget," wrote Cahoon. Cahoon went on to praise Botelho for his responsiveness to his queries and support of education funding.
After the vote which essentially cuts critical education services, some members of the council are now stating that the $200,000 will be eventually restored to the school budget. "I want all to know the school will receive the $200,000.00 funding even though it was not approved in the final budget," blogs Ward Two council member Anna Sousa. "Coming soon," she writes.
(Disclosure: The writer, Bob Rodericks, is a candidate for the city council-at-large seat in November)