Bristol Warren schools face unprecedented budget crisis

Even in 'best case scenario,' $1.9 million shortfall would mean dozens of layoffs, deep cuts to sports and more

By Ted Hayes
Posted 2/23/21

Bristol Warren Regional school administrators are facing the reality of laying off dozens of full time employees, cutting the hockey program and other sports, and scaling back services as they look …

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Bristol Warren schools face unprecedented budget crisis

Even in 'best case scenario,' $1.9 million shortfall would mean dozens of layoffs, deep cuts to sports and more

Posted

Bristol Warren Regional school administrators are facing the reality of laying off dozens of full time employees, cutting the hockey program and other sports, and scaling back services as they look for ways to eliminate a looming budget shortfall that even in a best case scenario will amount to $2 million or more this coming school year.

In a sometimes heated and tense school committee meeting Monday evening, Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice laid out a $58.34 million budget plan that he acknowledged will cause widespread pain across the district, even if Warren and Bristol fully fund the district's local aid request. The financial impact of Covid, declining state aid, budget decisions made last year that cannot be repeated, declining enrollment and increased salary and benefits costs will all contribute to the shortfall, he said:

"We have gotten through a year which has been as unprecedented as any year in American history," he said. "I think we have gotten through it relatively strong. But it does mean that on the back end of that, there are going to have to be significant cuts. It's very complex and very, very dicey. It is going to be incumbent upon all of us to work together, and even by doing that we still know that unfortunately there are going to be a number of significant staff reductions" and other cuts.

After more than two hours of discussion, frustrated school committee members decided to stop for the night, declining to approve a final budget request to submit to the Joint Finance Committee by their March 1 deadline. Instead, members agreed to come back Thursday evening to try to settle on an amount to send to the JFC. In doing so, they directed Dr. Brice and his team to come up with detailed breakdowns of where the cuts will come.

What happened?
Under state law, school districts cannot raise local school district spending more than 4 percent without approval of the General Assembly. Last year, JFC officials approved that 4 percent request, one of the first times in years that the financing board had agreed to fully fund the district's request.

This year, even raising local spending by that maximum will fall $1.9 million short of the district's needs. Apart from rising salary, insurance and other fixed costs, the district will not have the benefit of using its reserves to offset local aid to offset spending, as it did last year when $300,000 was taken from the technology fund balance, and officials are not optimistic that the state will deliver as much state aid as the district needs. If the JFC decides to level fund the district at last year's amount, the shortfall would jump to $3.5 million.

Even under the 4 percent best case scenario, Dr. Brice said the district would have to make severe cuts, including:

* Eliminate 23.25 full time employee positions for a savings of $1,455,682 million;

* Cut athletics by $172,945, supplies and materials by $137,627, contracted services by $30,000 and reduce staff hours for a savings of $103,726, among other cuts.

Bad as it is, he said, the shortfall is likely to be worse than that. Acknowledging that both Warren and Bristol are facing their own budget issues this year, Dr. Brice said his plan is to ask for a 3 percent increase, which would lead to a $2.3 million deficit and deeper cuts.

Still, "I cannot in good conscience recommend 4 percent," he said. "I believe that the towns may not be able to put up 4 percent under their obligations."

School committee members did not take the news well. Several questioned the numbers, asking where in each department those cuts would come and ultimately directing Dr. Brice to take the next several days to come up with a "programmatic" analysis of where the cuts would hit, from classroom to classroom.

"I don't feel comfortable (and) I have a very hard time supporting this budget," committee member Tara Thibaudeau said. "I can't go to the JFC and say, 'Give us 3 percent. I don't know what that means, but let's start there and work it out.' I don't work that way personally. I need to vet it and I need to trust it. At this moment I do not."

She wasn't alone. Several other committee members expressed similar sentiments, saying that even though the JFC only approves a bottom line budget that leaves spending at the school department's discretion, they need to have more information before signing off on anything.

"I don't know now if we're on the right path," Sheila Ellsworth said. "We need to know what we're up against. I won't go to the JFC without something that I can understand (and) stand behind."

"If we see that list of people and staff ... I think that might be a more realistic goal," member Nicky Piper said of the 3 percent request.

"If we could have something like that by (the end of the week), I would feel very comfortable moving forward with that.

The closest the committee got to approving a budget request came when member Carly Reich motioned for the committee to approve Dr. Brice's 3 percent local increase spending plan. However, she later withdrew the motion when it became clear that it would not have enough votes to pass.

"This is devastating and heart-breaking," she said. "I wish for full funding. I want to ask for 44 percent. I want to ask for 10 percent. I wish we weren't in this position."

The school committee will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to review Dr. Brice's programmatic breakdown of potential cuts, and must have a budget request to the JFC by Monday, March 1. Following that the JFC will meet Thursday, March 11 to begin reviewing it.

How big would shortfall be?

On Monday night, Bristol Warren Regional Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice laid out four scenarios based on how much the Joint Finance Committee will approve in local spending aid. They are:

n Four percent local funding increase: $1.9 million deficit
n Three percent local funding increase: $2.3 million deficit
n Two percent local funding increase: $2.7 million deficit
n One percent local funding increase: $3.1 million deficit
n Level funding vs. last year: $3.5 million deficit

Budget breakdown: Where is the money going?

Under Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice's proposed budget:

* Salaries account for 54 percent of the budget ($31.8 million)
* Benefits account for 24 percent of the budget ($14.1 million)
* 'Other purchased services' account for 11 percent of the budget ($6.6 million)
* Debt service and miscellaneous accounts for 3 percent of the budget ($1.66 million)
* Purchased services account for 3 percent of the budget ($1.63 million)
* Supplies account for 3 percent of the budget ($1.495 million)
* Purchased property services account for 2 percent of the budget ($980,000)
* Capital equipment and property account for $71,500 of the budget

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