Bristol Warren School officials react to budget worries

By Ted Hayes
Posted 2/23/21

Bristol Warren Regional School Committee members and, just prior, members of the committee's budget subcommittee on Monday night expressed anger, concern, frustration and wariness as Superintendent …

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Bristol Warren School officials react to budget worries

Posted

Bristol Warren Regional School Committee members and, just prior, members of the committee's budget subcommittee on Monday night expressed anger, concern, frustration and wariness as Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice laid out a spending plan that, even in the best case scenario, will leave the district millions short of where it needs to be. From talk of cutting hockey to reducing teaching staff and education, committee members touched on dozens of points throughout the two-plus hour meeting. Following are several topics discussed throughout the course of the meeting, and members' and Dr. Brice's thoughts on them:

On sports, which under a best-case scenario would be cut by $172,000, possibly eliminating the hockey program:

"Why is hockey being attacked?" asked school committee member Victor Cabral.

"What was that word?" Dr. Brice responded quickly.
"I apologize," committee member Victor Cabral replied. "I really misspoke on that."

"It's really the ice time that is a very costly thing," Dr. Brice said. "I would not be surprised if there are other sports ... that also become part of the conversation. Football is absolutely the most expensive sport that you can operate. It was not something that we put on the table. We want to be measured. We want to be as prudent as possible. But unfortunately the athletic budget is not one that can go untouched or unimpacted."

"I do not support cutting athletics," said member Tara Thibaudeau. "The only thing that was somewhat normal to our kids (this past year) was athletics. We have 900 athletes. Why would we want to take that small piece that affects 900 kids in our district? There are so many administrative choices that I don't understand."

"In a situation where I may be forced to have to cut an elementary teacher ... I absolutely will cut athletics," Dr. Brice responded. "My priorities are not athletics. My priorities are reading, English/language arts, social studies, science, music, art, PE ... Athletics is critically important and I am not going to suggest that it is not. But in a situation where we may have to cut teachers, everything is on the table."

On the district's organization:

Last year, Dr. Brice asked for and was approved to use $300,000 from the district's technology fund balance to offset local and state aid. That decision led to a wider discussion on the district's organization, and whether Bristol Warren, as it is currently structured, can sustain itself long term:

"It's no one's fault that we got here (but) we can't operate this way effectively and educate our children to the best of our ability," said Sheila Ellsworth. "Making these cuts ... they're not sustainable. You're not going to be able to do that next year. We've been in a structural deficit for some time. So we need how to educate our children, period. We need to do a complete reorganization and make sure wee understand where every dollar is going. And right now we had to bring in two budget consultants because we could not do that."

"That is where I disagree," said Dr. Brice. "I am trying to make decisions to the best of our ability ... Do you think that I'm going to sit here and make recommendations ...."

"But here's the thing," Ms. Ellsworth interjected. "We can't just keep using fund balance as a patch. The recommendations that you made are a quick fix for one year."

"This is a larger conversation and I am certainly willing to have that conversation," Dr. Brice replied. "But can I just tell you, the idea that somehow we haven't thought about the impact on students ... that is not an argument that I can co-sign."

On asking for a 'programmatic breakdown' of cuts:

"It is our responsibility on the school committee to question these things and do due diligence," Tara Thibaudeau said. "There are so many questions that I have that I can't discuss because they're either confidential or whatever. But these questions are serious questions that make me question whether we're efficient with our spending. That's where people should be concerned."

"This feels very much like putting the cart before the horse," school committee member Erin Schofield said. "Again, I understand what the circumstances are. I think we need to really get back on track with working together. Otherwise we're just talking in circles."

"These kinds of requests for minutea seem unreasonable," member Carly Reich said. "I'm struggling to understand why some members of this subcommittee don't support something that they've had in their hands the whole time. Quantifying it .. is not going to reduce the fact that our kids aren't going to have the same offerings" after programs are cut.

On the school committee's role, and the JFC:

"If you tax everybody out of the school district, you don't have a school district," Ms. Thibaudeau said, referring to district spending.

"We're not taxing anybody," school committee chairwoman Marge McBride said. "What we're doing is asking the towns for money. The towns decide. We are not here ... to advocate for taxpayers. We are here to advocate for children and that's a very different ball of wax. I also believe that we need to take into consideration what tows can afford, and we have to recognize this year that the towns were affected by Covid just as much as we were. We have to look at what we need for the children. I don't agree with the amount on the table. I think it should be less. I think it should be 2 percent."

"One of my concerns is the fact that wee can discuss this as much as we want, but when we go in front of the JFC, believe me they're going to be asking many more pointed questions," member Victor Cabral said. "These questions are going to come up and we have to be ready for them."

"We don't have to justify anything" to the JFC, Ms. McBride replied. "They can ask all the questions they want ... but they may not get an answer."

"That will mean that they're going to lower you" budget-wise, he replied. "If you don't come out with the right answers, believe me they're not going to give us what we need."

On state education aid, which is expected to decline this year:

"We operate in a time where it is not possible for the district budget to be fully funded either from local or the state," Dr. Brice said. "We recognize that and we are trying to make the best decision out of really unfortunate circumstances. State revenues to school systems is expected to decrease. If it decreases greater than expected ... we would also have a significant impact on the bottom line."

On planning for Covid next year

In his budget presentation, Dr. Brice included no new spending for Covid impacts in the fall semester.

"We are hoping against hope that the start of the school year would not require us to do things like have social distancing in classrooms, pay for extra PPE (personal protection equipment), buy additional equipment ... so all of those costs have been removed from the budget."

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