Bristol, Warren finance board looks for $8.2 million school budget fix

According to projections, local school bill will rise $8.2 million over next three years; JFC looks for local, state solutions

By Ted Hayes
Posted 12/1/17

With Warren and Bristol taxpayers’ local school contributions projected to rise $8.262 million over the next three years, the board that sets the regional school district’s budget met …

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Bristol, Warren finance board looks for $8.2 million school budget fix

According to projections, local school bill will rise $8.2 million over next three years; JFC looks for local, state solutions

Posted

With Warren and Bristol taxpayers’ local school contributions projected to rise $8.262 million over the next three years, the board that sets the regional school district’s budget met Thursday night to plan for a nearly perfect storm of financial shortfalls: Rising local school costs, declining state education aid and very little fiscal wiggle room.

The Joint Finance Committee normally doesn’t start talking about school budgets until March, but chairman Andy Tyska of the Bristol Town Council called Thursday’s meeting months in advance to help prepare members for what he believes could be some hard choices:

“In light of these numbers I think there needs to be consideration of what can be done to help narrow this gap,” he told his fellow JFC members and the nearly 30 audience members who attended Thursday’s meeting. “This meeting, I hope, will allow us time.”

 

What’s at stake?

Several weeks ago, Bristol Warren officials received updated state aid figures which show aid declining by a collective $1.6 million through 2021. At the same time, the school department estimates that even with no new initiatives or programs, its budget will rise from $54.3 million next year to$59.45 million by the 2020-2021 school year, mostly due to contractual obligations and other set costs. Add in declines in other forms of school funding, and Bristol and Warren taxpayers will pay about $8.2 million more for schools over the next three years than they do now. If nothing is done to cut costs, Bristol taxpayers will cover about $5.8 million of that increase, with Warren residents responsible for about $2.4 million of it.

Finding ways to chip away at the gap was the main focus of Thursday’s meeting, and committee members settled on a three-pronged approach after nearly two hours of discussion: Ask the school department to go over its numbers and come up with clear budget projections for the next three years; ask the town councils of Barrington and Warren to do the same; and appeal to the towns’ legislative representatives to look for fiscal solutions at the state level.

“This has been dumped on us to try and fix this,” JFC member and Bristol town councilor Mary Parella said. “The communities have done the best job they can … but we can’t absorb all of this. A lot of this needs to be solved at the legislative level. I’m not trying to put this on the legislators, but I was there (as a Senator) for 12 years. We’re not going to find (the money) here, and if we do, at what expense? Do we not have police? Do we not have plowing? Do we not have whatever?”

“Everybody’s going to have to economize,” added member Ed Stuart, also a Bristol councilor.

“An $8.2 million increase in three years sounds like a very high amount to me. It’s almost impossible to say that any one of our towns, particularly Bristol, can come up with $6 million in the next three years … and that would be possible without state assistance.”

“We can’t try to be that much more streamlined,” said Joseph Depasquale, a JFC member and president of the Warren Town Council. “We don’t have widgets that we can sell — these are the kind of numbers that require the cutting of budgets.”

 

Declining state aid

Though rising local costs are also a big part of the picture, some of the looming budget crisis’s seeds were sown in 2012, when the state announced that it would scale back the regionalization bonus that the district has received every year since the towns of Bristol and Warren merged their school districts in 1991.

School Supt. Mario Andrade said that in 2012, the state estimated that state aid would decline about $808,000 per year over the next decade. While the yearly decline ended up being less — about $500,000 to $600,000 per year over the past several years, “this past year, there was a shift in the numbers we received. Next year’s (reduction) is going to be $900,000.”

Dr. Mario said the school department asked for justification for the increased reduction from the state, and “they said that based on recent demographic and property values, that both towns could contribute more.”

Several audience members said school and JFC officials should have been more away that declines were coming. When the state announced the regionalization rollback, the JFC appointed a task force to look for funding solutions. Bristol resident Paul Labonte was the chairman of that task force, and said its recommendations were never followed through with:

The task force was empaneled “to address, quite frankly, every issue that we’re talking about tonight,” he said. “Unfortunately, none of those recommendations were ever taken or acted upon. I would like to encourage the committee to take some time and go back through” those recommendations.

 

Enough for schools?

While one of the overriding themes Thursday was that the state needs to be a large part of the solution, those in attendance didn’t always agree on where cuts should come from. Warren Town Council member John Hanley, who is not on the JFC but watched from the audience, told the committee that while some are looking to the state for a fix, it is not the only problem:

“Even if we get the state to hold their funding steady, we’re still in a $3.1, $3.2 million hole,” he said. “We keep talking about state aid here, but that’s the smallest piece of the puzzle.

“What’s ahead of us is definitely going to take (all) parties’ participation,” Mr. Depasquale added. “It’s clear that we’re going to have to cut town budgets to make this happen or … the school committee cutting its budget.”

Talk of asking schools to tighten their belts didn’t go over well with several audience members including Brian Chidester, a Warren resident who teaches at Mt. Hope High School and is vice president of the teachers’ union, the Bristol Warren Education Association:

“There’s one thing you people could do tonight and that is change your attitude,” he told committee members. “It’s obvious to me and to many in the audience that the schools are not your priority. In the last 12 years the JFC has not once approved the entire request of the Bristol Warren School Committee. The school committee comes in with a modest request and it gets docked as it is. I understand the state is a problem, absolutely, (but) I would like to see people stop kicking the can down the road.”

Bristol resident Bart Ferris agreed: 

“We have some of the best schools in the state, but I am curious if we are spending the money we need to spend to keep the schools where they need to go? Are we spending all we should be spending on the schools? (School budgets) are always low increases, but the municipal budget always goes up. Where are we putting our investments, not only for today but for the future?

“Everybody wants the best schools you can have, but people have to be able to afford to live here,” Ms. Parella responded. “We work very hard to be fair and equitable to everyone.” But if school budgets keep rising, “people will get a good education, yes, but will they be able to afford to come back here and live?”

 

Next step

The JFC will meet again the third week of January, and Mr. Tyska said he hopes that there will be some clarity on potential savings and solutions from each town council, the school department and the towns’ legislative representatives. He gave a nod to Mr. Ferris, saying the kinds of questions he asked should be asked by all parties involved:

“I’m hoping the very discussion that Mr. Ferris started is a discussion that can happen in the context of each town council,” he said — “What their will is to be able to look at the revenue that it allocates toward education, and upon each doing that and locking in a three-year projection, we here at the JFC can see where the constraints are.”

“Hopefully the next time we meet we can have discussion around numbers that add up — more clearly, I should say.”

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