JFC approves $40.275 million for Bristol Warren schools

In three-hour meeting, members talk Covid-19, state aid, local priorities and the towns' growing crisis while voting to support district's budget plan

By Ted Hayes
Posted 3/26/20

In a historic "virtual" meeting closed to the public but live-streamed over the Internet, the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday night unanimously approved $40.275 million in local …

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JFC approves $40.275 million for Bristol Warren schools

In three-hour meeting, members talk Covid-19, state aid, local priorities and the towns' growing crisis while voting to support district's budget plan


In a historic "virtual" meeting closed to the public but live-streamed over the internet, the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday night unanimously approved $40.275 million in local funding for the Bristol Warren Regional School District for the 2020-21 school year. Warren's increase over last year is $524,134; Bristol's bill rises $730,820.

The budget, passed by the JFC after three hours of debate at Warren Town Hall, was not without its difficulties. Numerous audio problems plagued the meeting and, with several participants participating remotely via phone or computer, committee members and tech staff worked throughout the meeting to tweak the production so viewers at home, some of whom texted participants about the problems, could hear the proceedings.

What remote listeners could hear was at times a tense debate between town officials and Dr. Jonathan Brice, the superintendent of the Bristol Warren Regional School District.

Several write-in participants, who wrote questions to JFC Chairman Steve Calenda that he then read aloud during the meeting, also made their pitch. Most implored JFC officials to fully fund the district's $1.55 million increase request, which constituted a 3.985 percent increase over the current year's spending.

Mr. Calenda seemed to know the debate was coming, as he said at the outset that "no matter how tonight's vote turns out, there are going to be people who aren't happy. This is going to require sacrifice from everyone listening to this discussion tonight."

Throughout the course of the meeting, JFC officials and Mr. Brice went back and forth on priorities. With the nation reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, several members said that while they support education and believe it is the highest use of tax dollars, the nation's severe crisis will have ripple effects that need to be taken into account. Some, like Bristol Town Council member Mary Parella, said the recent events and the town's already heavy tax burden are making life untenable for residents there, and something has to give:

"I think (the budget request) should go down," she said. "People are literally being priced out of their homes. And on top of this, I am substantially, very, very worried (with the Covid-19 situation). There's going to be substantial business disruption. How do we face our local business owners who are literally hanging on by a thread? This could go on for months and months and months. And if it does, how can we in good conscience continue to add to the tax burden? It's very, very difficult."

"I believe you when you say that you are supportive of education," Dr. Brice said, "that it is a priority and that you want to make sure that you are helping our young people develop. I understand the economic circumstances. But I also know that during times of crisis (that we) figure out what is most important. We need to prepare our young people. That can only be done if you give us the resources to do it."

Throughout the meeting, JFC members questioned Mr. Brice on the budget's particulars, asking if officials had done the due diligence required to find and trim any fat within the budget.

Bristol Town Administrator Stephen Contente asked several questions and reminded Dr. Brice at several points that in his mind, the district could do more to look for ways to keep the bottom line down. His questions ranged from whether the district had looked into re-financing long-term debt to take advantage of lower interest rates, how much insurance would actually cost the district this coming year and why out-of-district student placement rose $375,000 over last year. He said during the meeting that while he had requested information from the school department last week, he had not gotten answers to his questions:

"There's a lot of weight here on raising taxes," he said. "I have to ask these questions."

One of the most pointed questions of the night came remotely from a Mt. Hope High School sophomore, who wrote to JFC members before the meeting and accused them of putting "greed" over education. The result, the student wrote, is less and less opportunity for students, especially those in the performing arts department.

"I kindly ask that you prioritize education over greed. The actions that you take every single year to turn down our students to greed has a ripple effect. Why do you do it?"

JFC members responded strongly to the question, noting that the JFC has given substantial increases to the school department for many years now. While noting that the JFC only sets a bottom line budget and leaves it up to the district how to spend it, members also said the real villain here isn't the towns, but the state, which has reduced aid to the district substantially over each of the last nine years, leaving the towns to make up the shortfall:

"We do prioritize education," said Bristol Town Council member Timothy Sweeney. "We understand these kids matter ... every colleague in this room puts education as number one."

"We are doing our part," Mr. Contente added. "State aid: There's the underlying problem. We're engaged. I don't know where our state leadership is. That's the problem. We do the very best to try to educate the kids with what little money we have. It weighs heavily on all of us."

"We, the towns, both towns, have been continuing to contribute while the state is taking those funds away," added Mr. Calouro. "We've made excellent decisions on a local level. It may not be as much as some would want, but it has been our priority."

Agreed, said Warren Town Council president Keri Cronin:

"My core value is that education is of the utmost importance," she said. "I feel like education is a priority of mine (and) the overwhelming and resounding feedback from the community" follows suit, she said. But "it's a real juggling of money and time to make it work."

Throughout his tenure at the district's helm, Dr. Brice has talked about his hope that the district be a top five school in the state within five years. One letter writer asked how the staff would fulfill that goal without a fully funded budget:

"They've risen to the occasion," he said of his staff, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. "Do I expect that they will continue to rise to the occasion? Absolutely. But when teachers don't have the tools that they need ... when they have to scramble to get needed supplies ... when they don't have the technology they need (or) the resources to add the type of programming that is necessary to help the students ... that takes a toll. That hurts morale. That causes teachers to feel undervalued and that is not something that we want."

"I would hope that the JFC recognizes that this is the most valuable resource that we have within the district. They are the ones that are working with our young ones every single day. I hope you are willing to invest ... and fully fund our budget."

The budget
After nearly three hours of debate, Mr. Sweeney motioned to fully fund the requested local amount of $40,575,133. That was quickly seconded by Tamara Kaplan of Warren. Minutes later, Mr. Calouro made a motion to reduce that amount by $300,000, which constitutes an insurance savings that was not noted in the original school budget request. Even with taking that money out, he said, the district will still essentially be fully funded:

"We're not hurting the schools at all," he said. "In essence, we are not cutting their request at all. We're going to have to make some serious cuts (on the towns' side) but I think it's appropriate. Where are we going to find this money? I have no idea. It's going to hurt a lot but I think we can make this increase."

Ms. Cronin agreed:

"I am eyes wide open to what we are all experiencing with this pandemic," she said. "I don't know what the future holds for our small businesses, our manufacturing, our state, our country. It's really scary. But I also know that we have really been shortchanging our students and not funding them to a level that would give them the opportunity that Dr. Brice has been championing now for so long. This is a fair budget, it's a reasonable budget. It will do the things that we really know need to get done. We're really at that point now that people are taking their kids out of the school system. With the exodus of these students, that decreases our enrollment. When the enrollment drops the (state) aid drops. We have to stop it at some point and we have to make a difficult decision and stand behind a budget that is really good."

"Things have changed," added Mr. Contente. "So much has changed (since the Covid-19 outbreak) that our responsibility has also changed. I think we should look at our budget again under these circumstances."

After a few minutes more debate, JFC members voted unanimously to approve a $40,275,133 budget, $300,000 less than school officials initially asked for.

And they left with a few words for the future:

"We can't continue to do this," Mr. Calouro said of not seeking more help from the state every year. "It's got to end."

To that end, Mr. Calenda closed the meeting by saying the JFC will start meeting regularly throughout the year, and will work with state legislators to try to improve state funding and impress upon lawmakers the growing financial crisis the district faces every year.

The numbers
Amount approved by JFC from Bristol and Warren: $40,275,133
Non-local (state) aid: $16,523,729
Total operations cost: $55,216412
Debt service: $1,582,450
Total 2020-2021 school budget: $56,798862
Bristol increase: $730,820
Warren increase: $424,134

Editor's note: The meeting was plagued with audio problems and at many points, participants' statements were garbled, unintelligible or too low to hear. For that reason, it was not possible to include all points made during the course of the meeting.

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