Potential layoffs portend funding decrease for East Providence schools

Governor's budget calls for $1.1 million less in state assistance

By Mike Rego
Posted 5/15/24

An anticipated $1.1 million reduction in state aid has created a headache for East Providence School District administrators along with a schism between them and the School Committee.

The usual …

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Potential layoffs portend funding decrease for East Providence schools

Governor's budget calls for $1.1 million less in state assistance


(Updated, May 22, 10 a.m.) An anticipated $1.1 million reduction in state aid has created a headache for East Providence School District administrators along with a schism between them and the School Committee.

The usual and mostly convivial tenor of committee meetings took a stark turn during a pair of meetings held over the last week on Tuesday, May 14, and Monday, May 20, when Superintendent Dr. Sandra Forand informed the body of the need to begin trimming costs in preparation for the upcoming budget season. As a start, Forand has proposed laying off 13 staff members, mostly teachers.

However, following a lengthy back-and-forth and on a narrow 3-2 vote at the May 14 meeting, the Committee declined to accept that recommendation. Jenni Furtado, Max Brandle and Tony Ferreira voted against the super's plan. Jessica Beauchaine and Ryan Queenan backed Forand's proposal.

As Forand indicated at the forum 10 days ago, nothing from the administration's perspective was going to change when the parties gathered once again earlier this week. But the five days in between were enough to change at least one member's vote, Brandle, who when the matter was brought up again sided with Beauchaine and Queenan to authorize the layoffs.

"Just to be clear I don't know what you think will change in a week," Forand said just prior to the May 14 vote. "I won't have a million dollars in cuts anywhere else. I mean we have combed through the budget."

She said earlier that same evening, "We feel as though there are positions we can eliminate in the district and therefore we need to layoff the least senior teachers so that the people who have most seniority in those positions can bump into these positions. Our ultimate goal is that no one gets laid off and everyone gets called back, but I just don't know if that's possible and we need to make sure we have the money to pay everyone."

The superintendent explained how she and her administration, including Finance Director Craig Enos, came to their conclusions. She also noted they worked in consultation with teachers union president Nick Shattuck.

Along with other districts, East Providence is facing a decrease in state aid according to the draft Fiscal Year 2025 budget proposed by the administration of Governor Dan McKee. Specifically, McKee's budget calls for a $1.1 million cut in state aid for EP. Though the General Assembly could put back that money in their version of the budget, Forand said she nonetheless had to prepare for the worst.

"Our state delegation is working. The (Assembly's) budget hasn't come out. The governor's budget came out. That's where we're facing the $1.1 million cut. So that's why we have to take action so we can put forth a balanced budget and right now our largest line item is personnel. And there's not another place where we can cut $1.1 million from the budget," said Forand.

She continued, "So I'm hoping we get back the state aid. I know our state delegation is fighting for it, but we need to be prepared for a situation where we have to take a big cut. And if we don't then great, we start to add positions back in. But I'm stating right now without taking action on personnel I will not be able to present you with a balanced budget."

The district is facing, among other collectively bargained aspects, a specific hard and fast deadline, a contractual obligation to inform teachers of any layoffs by June 1. If missed, the administration would not be able to revisit the prospect of laying off instructors until this time next year.

Another mandate, this one a state law, requires school districts to run a surplus. Forand called the layoff notices a "precautionary," though necessary move because of that fact. Still another state law the district is running up against is Maintenance of Effort, one which sets the guidelines for how municipalities can and/or must fund parts of the school budget.

As Enos explained, the maximum increase schools can request this fiscal year based off the last is 4 percent, meaning the East Providence City Council can only up its contribution to the operational costs of schools by $2.1 million year over year.

Forand also noted the district must include contractual increases in healthcare of $600,000, in salaries of $2 million as well as an anticipated increase in transportation and Special Education costs.

In total, the administration expects additional expenses of $4.6 million at the start of its next fiscal year beginning November 1. Even with the state aid added back and getting the max from the city, the district is still likely facing the need to cut $2.5 million to keep its finances in the black.

"We are responsible for coming up with the balanced budget and we feel this is the way to do it considering the loss of state aid we face as far as cuts and the increases we have in the district coming up," said Forand, who added "there's just not that many places to cut $2.5 million" other than personnel.

Forand termed the staff reductions "thoughtful," saying "we tried to choose positions that would have the least impact."

Of the positions, work load or class sizes were the key factors as were a few who had yet to gain their state certifications. As an example Forand said the kindergarten level at one school has just 16 students registered for the 2024-25 term, but 50 seats available. She asked somewhat rhetorically, "What are we going to do run two classrooms of eight?"

"No one wants to do this," Forand continued. "This is unfortunately the reality right now...None of this is easy...No one wants to cut. We want to add programs, but again this is the reality of where we are."

The trio opposed to her conclusions mostly cited the focus on just teachers and no other personnel grouping or programs. The superintendent countered by saying she surveyed all other intra-department administrators for suggestions on places where reductions could be made and received little impactful responses.

"Again, this was not done lightly...We're considering everything," Forand said.

And to the points of the May 14 majority, trimming teachers is not the end of anticipated cuts. Forand said instructors were just the "first round" and were being done singularly because "other positions are not due right now."

Beauchaine noted to her peers before their first vote, "What's in front of us doesn't come close to a million dollars. There's more to come."

Added Forand, "This is a necessary precaution...salaries and benefits, unfortunately, that's where you get your biggest bang for your buck...We have to reduce our operating expenses now and going forward."

East Providence is not alone in needing to layoff teachers, something that is actually done just about every year prior to the annual budget season. Just recently, Forand said Providence laid off some 400. In Burrillville the number was 39. The 13 locally, she said, "is a low number for what districts around the state are doing."

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