JFC questions Bristol Warren's long-term strategy

Finance board will start meeting regularly with school administrators

By Ted Hayes
Posted 3/26/21

Members of the Joint Finance Committee will hold regular quarterly meetings with Bristol Warren administrators in the coming months as they seek ways to improve the district and eliminate the …

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JFC questions Bristol Warren's long-term strategy

Finance board will start meeting regularly with school administrators

Posted

Members of the Joint Finance Committee will hold regular quarterly meetings with Bristol Warren administrators in the coming months as they seek ways to improve the district and eliminate the "structural deficit" that they said seems to plague the district year in and year out.

As they unanimously approved a 3 percent local education spending increase for the 2021-22 school year Thursday evening, JFC members had pointed questions for Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice, expressing some skepticism that the district will be able to reach its goal of being a top five district over the next three years in its current financial position.

Even with the 3 percent increase, the district is still $2.3 million shy of a balanced budget and will eliminate two dozen full time employee positions, undertake programmatic changes and likely close the Oliver School, the current home of the administration offices, to make ends meet.

In a presentation at the start of the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice showed several slides showing the district's position on a number of key factors, including achievement in several areas of instruction, state aid per pupil and the like. Many of those are firmly in the middle of the pack statewide, he acknowledged:

"We're solidly in the middle. We have to ask ourselves whether or not we want a school district that is solidly in the middle, because I absolutely do not."

He said many external factors, including declining state aid and dropping enrollment, are at least partly to blame for the district's continual financial difficulties that plague Bristol and Warren every budget cycle. While he is committed to his goal of being one of the top five districts in the state over the next three years, "we've got a long way to go. The real question is, how much further can we go" given those external factors?

"We recognize that we have significant work to do."

Part of Dr. Brice's plan for improving education and getting the district's finances on a more solid footing is increasing enrollment through the addition of CTE (Career/Technical Education) programs that he believes could draw students from other districts.

This year, 37 Bristol and Warren students left to be educated outside the district, settling at East Providence, The MET School and others, taking with them approximately $432,000 in state funding that follows the student. To halt or reverse that trend, the district clearly needs to add more programs that will help retain students and bring new ones here, he said:

"This idea around CTE — it stabilizes enrollment," he said. "Imagine if those 37 were still with us. That's four teachers. It's programming. We want parents to choose to stay in our district. We're not going to attract boatloads of kids, but at a minimum we have to hold on to the children we have. We have to hold serve."

But JFC members and Daryl Gould, a former school committee candidate who called in to comment during the meeting, seemed wary.

"We're operating under this Top Five in Five, which I think is a baseless marketing program," Mr. Gould said. "At the end of the day, it's not going to happen. No matter how many cherry picked stats we're throwing up there, I don't see any way we're going to get there."

Several JFC members echoed Mr. Gould's statements, saying they agreed with several of the points he made, if not always his tone.

"People are moving out because they can no longer afford to live in these communities," JFC Mary Parella, a member of the Bristol Town Council, said.

For years, Mt. Hope High School had a home building program, in which students built homes and sold them at market rate. Though it was done away with more than a decade ago, she said it would be a big draw to the district if it were still in place. Even so, she said, Bristol Warren should not rely on vocational and CTE programs to be a financial savior.

"On the CTE — that is the latest buzzword. I don't think we should delude ourselves that we're going to be the next East Providence vocational school, the next MET School or anything like that."

"He's not wrong," added Bristol Town Council Chairman Nathan Calouro of Mr. Gould's comments. Instead of looking for financial counter-balances, a more overall approach and deep look at the district's structure is needed, he said:

"I appreciate Bristol Warren (wanting to) be the best it can be," he said. "But if you don't know where you are in your goal, you are in no danger of achieving it. How are we going to achieve that success? Right now, with the numbers, we're not getting there."

"I really don't think it's going to work," Bristol Town Administrator Steve Contente said. "We have decreased enrollment and expenses that grow exponentially every year. Within 90 days, I really want to know what the plan is to get out of this structural deficit. We can't keep increasing taxes much more than we are now. How are we going to get out of this?"

JFC Chairman Steven Calenda, a member of the Warren Town Council, said at the end of the meeting that he will call regular quarterly meetings in the coming months to talk with Dr. Brice and other administrators about the district's fiscal and programmatic health. Dr. Brice said he welcomes the greater interaction with the JFC:

"I agree with the idea of improving communication with the school department and the JFC," Dr. Brice said. "It will allow everybody to know what we are forecasting so that by the time we get to February and start this process, there will at least be some work that has been completed."

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