Warren finds $2 million school funding 'error'
Officials in the Town of Warren believe they have discovered a mistake that will save taxpayers more than $2 million.
The Town of Bristol doesn't know what to think, because that $2 million would shift right over to its taxpayers.
Thus the first Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee meeting of the year got off to a rocky start after Warren dropped its bombshell.
The disagreement centers around the current formula for sharing state monies with school districts. Warren town leaders claim that the Bristol Warren Regional School District has been using that formula improperly, essentially giving too much of the state money to Bristol and not enough to Warren. They made their case public last Thursday, March 6, just as members of the joint finance committee were getting their first look at the school district’s budget request for fiscal year 2014-2015.
Under the current system, the school district gets a big contribution from the State of Rhode Island each year to help pay for the public schools. It is expected to be $16.7 million next year. The school district looks at how much it plans to spend (about $54.7 million), deducts the state's money, and then the towns pay the difference. They currently pay based on the percentage of students coming from each town — 62 percent from Bristol, 38 percent from Warren.
A new way of splitting the bill
Warren leaders now say that's the wrong way to do it. Instead of taking that state money off the top of the bill, it should first be split between the towns based on a formula recognizing socioeconomic factors. Under that formula, Warren gets $5,442 per student (it has 1,304 students) and Bristol gets $2,897 per student (it has 2,120 students). If you use the new Warren methodology, more than $2 million would shift from the Warren side of the bill to the Bristol side.
“We wondered if state aid was being applied appropriately,” Warren Town Council chairman and finance committee member Christopher Stanley said. “If you look at the funding formula legislation, it was to help the less fortunate communities. The funding formula is rather clear. The money should follow the pupil.”
In this year’s budget request as presented, Bristol would owe $21.7 million and Warren would contribute $13.4 million. Using Warren’s methodology, Bristol would owe $23.8 million, compared to Warren’s $11.3 million.
“What we’d like at this point is for the school department to re-calculate and re-balance the budget,” Mr. Stanley said. “Give us the aid the way it was supposed to be given.”
According to Mr. Stanley, Warren’s methodology is also used in other regional districts, such as Foster Glocester, where he is a teacher. The Chariho district uses yet another methodology, suggesting that how the formula is applied may be open to interpretation.
Warren vs. Bristol, Part Two
The timing of Warren’s discovery added another wrinkle to the already troubled relationship among members of the joint finance committee. The committee, whose sole responsibility is to set the school budget, including the share that each town must pay, has more Bristol representatives than Warren, leaving some Warren members feeling powerless in the voting process.
Last year, the Warren Town Council ignored the Joint Finance Committee and voted against a school budget increase, instead choosing to level-fund the district. The school district, in an attempt to force Warren to pay its mandated share, filed suit in Superior Court against the town. A decision on that matter is pending.
Now the finance committee and the school department are left to contemplate Warren’s latest effort to cut their school funding bill.
Finance committee Chairman Nathan Calouro said Warren's argument may be valid, but he is disappointed they waited until the eleventh hour to present it. “If we had this information earlier, we could have had open dialogue about it,” Mr. Calouro said.
" I understand where they are coming from,” Mr. Calouro said of the latest proposal. “Just because you’ve been doing it one way, doesn’t mean it is the right way.”
The fact that other regionalized systems use different calculations in their budgeting process is also a concern, said Mr. Calouro. "It says to me that there is no mandate. Is there some edict or mandate that we can follow? This starts a potentially slippery slope."
Mr. Stanley said this is part of a “long-term struggle.”
“We’re subsidizing the Town of Bristol. That’s where I’m frustrated. Will it wind up in court? I hope not,” he said.
The finance committee will meet again on Thursday, March 27.