Bristol, Warren seek stable-funding alternatives for schools

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In an effort to eliminate surprise school bills every October, Bristol and Warren Town councillors are supporting a measure that would alter the funding method for the Bristol Warren Regional School District.

Rather than bill each town for its Oct. 1 student enrollment each year, members of the Joint Finance Committee agreed to fund the school district based on the average daily enrollment (membership) over the past 13 years.

"How can we eliminate the swing from year to year as finance directors," Warren Tax Collector Mike Abruzzi told the committee during its meeting Dec. 11. "One of our jobs is to plan, and so we asked, how can we make that education number not so much of a surprise on Oct. 1?"

Mr. Abruzzi, along with Julie Goucher, Bristol's Town Treasurer, and Pauline Silva, Director of Administration and Finance for the school district, presented their findings to the committee on alternate funding methods for the school district.

One method, which was openly disapproved, was to create a separate taxing authority for the school district. Property owners within the district would be assessed a schools tax, which would be collected by a separate entity.

"The first big con that comes up is that we're adding another level of bureaucracy," Mr. Abruzzi said. "We kind of shied away from that. We didn't want to add costs to the system, and there would be implementation concerns."

The towns could continue to tax its residents the same, but also get on the same assessment timeframe, thereby eliminating a stark difference in property values every few years. Bristol is currently undergoing its property revaluation, which Warren completed over a year ago. If property values go down, taxes go up.

"There's currently a disparity between towns over what a household pays per thousand," said Mr. Abruzzi. "We found this this approach would not necessarily eliminate the swings, and that's what we really want to do."

The other way of funding the district would be to take the average daily attendance per student over the past 13 years and bill each town based on that figure. The fluctuation was less volatile using this method, Ms. Silva said.

Enrollment figures for the year are reported on Oct. 1. Based on that figure, each town is billed for the number of students it has in the school district. However, the enrollment figures change by the end of the school year, often by about 100 students.

Billing each town based on the average daily membership gives each town an ability to more accurately predict its funding share.

"It's important to note that we didn't look at the numbers, we looked at the methodology," Ms. Silva said. "We wanted to provide stability to the towns, and what would prove equal. This was an honest comparison about the process, not about the figures."

By utilizing the average daily membership method, the financing disparity at most would be about $100,000.

"That's a lot easier to handle than $1 million," said Warren Town Councillor Catherine Tattrie.

Committee members agreed to move forward with finding a long-term solution for funding the school district. It may eventually require legislation to put both towns in sync for revaluations, Mr. Abruzzi said.

Last year, saying Warren could no longer foot the bill for steadily rising school costs and was being unfairly represented on the finance committee, councilors voted — and Warren voters affirmed that decision at Financial Town Meeting in May — to pay the school district $11.75 million in school aid instead of the $12.165 million the finance committee specified. That $11.75 million was the same amount the Town of Warren paid the school district for the 2011-12 school year. Soon after Warren drew a line in the fiscal sand, the Bristol Warren Regional School District filed suit against the town, seeking to reclaim that money. The case has been in Rhode Island Superior Court ever since, and in September Superior Court Associate Justice Luis Matos said a decision would be forthcoming soon. None has yet been issued.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.