The Joint Finance Committee narrowly approved a $54.28 million budget for the coming school year, a move that was less than the Bristol Warren Regional School District asked for, and much more than Warren officials say the town can afford.
In the 5-4 vote, Bristol JFC representative Mary Parella joined the Warren contingency in its unanimous vote against the 2.65 percent budget increase. Warren, struggling to find enough money to cover municipal expenses, intends to level fund the schools just as it did last year; a move that is still being contested in court.
For nearly an hour before the first motion on the budget was made, members of the JFC debated the validity of Warren’s claim that the money from the state’s funding formula to the regionalized school district has been incorrectly calculated since the Department of Education revised the state aid formula in 2011.
As a result, Warren contests that aid should be awarded to the individual towns based on the number of students from each, as opposed to the money going into the district budget and divided out proportionately along with other funds.
For Warren, the method used would result in a $2 million gain or loss in the town’s budget for the coming year.
“We’re talking about our right to exist as a community,” said Warren JFC member and Town Council President Christopher Stanley.
“We don’t want to secede from the district, we want you to follow the law.”
Ms. Parella, who sat alongside Warren’s JFC members at the March 27 meeting at Mt. Hope High School, said she recognized Warren’s financial struggles, but said they aren’t the result of the town having to share in funding the regionalized school department.
“Your town government’s issue has to be addressed at another level,” she said. “The burden shouldn’t be on Bristol to help solve the problem.”
After listening to the back-and-forth between JFC members, Brian Chidester, a teacher at Mt. Hope High School and Bristol resident, stood at the podium for public comment. Understanding that the issue of funding the budget wasn’t going to be resolved at that meeting, he attempted to share the issue from a different perspective.
“This is a crisis that the state put us in,” Mr. Chidester said.
While he considers Warren’s funding points a “weak argument,” he said continued school budget cuts have led to equipment and staffing problems at the high school.
“These are the effects of the cuts already,” he said.
Bristol resident Linda Rimoshytus recently moved from Warren and has heard the cost-sharing arguments before.
“We chose to go down this road,” she said of the decision to regionalize the two school districts. “There’s no need to nit-pick. As long as we’re married as a district, we need to act as one.”
Nina Murphy, also of Bristol, agreed that when it comes to the school district, the two towns cannot be divided.
“I’ve worked in the district for eight years and never looked at a child as being from Bristol or Warren. We’re all one community,” she said.
Ms. Murphy criticized Warren’s members for waiting to present their interpretation of the funding formula until budget discussions were underway.
“To throw this at us at this point in time, that’s irresponsible,” she said.
After pitching the “reasonable budget” to the JFC based on the districts success in having a 92 percent graduation rate and scoring second in the state in NECAP scores, school committee chairman Paul Silva asked the members of the JFC to support the “reasonable budget” to “at least show some interest in what’s being done in the community.”
“This district has been a model in the state,” Mr. Silva said.
However, the budget as proposed did not reach a vote. Also failing to pass were Halsey Herreshoff’s proposal of a 3.5 percent increase; Ms. Parella’s proposed 2.25 percent increase; Edward Stuart’s proposed 2.75 percent increase; and Timothy Sweeney’s proposed 2.5 percent increase.
Upon hearing those failed motions, Mr. Herreshoff made a motion for a 2.65 percent increase in the school district budget. The total authorization on his proposal was calculated to be $54,279,653. With that, Bristol will bear 61.92 percent of the cost based on enrollment, or $21,431,858. Warren’s 38.08 percent share equals $13,182,615.
The motion passed 5-4 with the support of Mr. Sweeney, Tony Teixeira, Mr. Herreshoff, Mr. Stuart and JFC chairman Nathan Calouro. Ms. Parella, as well as Warren representatives Scott Lial, Mr. Stanley and David Frerich, opposed.
Upon passage of the budget, Mr. Stanley said he expects that Warren will again level fund the budget as they did last year. Otherwise, he said, the town would exceed the 4 percent tax levy cap.
As for the argument whether the funding formula is being applied correctly, he said the town plans to go back to court for a decision on that.
“We’ll file in tomorrow morning,” he said.
Also disappointed in the budget was superintendent of schools Melinda Thies. The difference of $455,000 will need to be absorbed by the school district, she said.
After struggling to keep programs in place ever since the state took away a significant amount of funding in 2011, Ms. Thies said that students now may be directly affected due to the cuts, with afterschool transportation, extended day programs, middle school athletics and intervention support programs all areas of potential cuts.
“We’ve already cut (the equivalent of) 8.2 positions,” Ms. Thies said. “There’s no wiggle room in the budget. This is my tipping point.”