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Age-old dilemma: Cut services or increase revenue?

March 31, 2012

WOONSOCKET – The School Committee balked at cutting school lunch monitors on Wednesday as the next step in reducing local school spending, but will seek to make changes in the health care coverage held by retired school department employees.
The decisions came Wednesday as the School Committee considered several matters related to the school department's ongoing budget problems and seemed to indicate a growing concern among some of the panel's members that student needs are being pushed aside in the effort to address funding shortfalls.
The plan to cut lunch monitors at both the elementary and secondary level had drawn opposition from Pothier Elementary Principal Donna Coderre and Tom Lambert, president of the support staff union, as the meeting began.
Coderre told the committee members the part-time lunch monitors are the lowest paid employees in her school and yet help “make a big difference in our day” while supervising the school's students as they eat lunch each day.
Without the monitors, Coderre said, the school's teachers and administrators would be drawn away from academic and administrative duties to fill in the gap.
“We are cutting services when we need more revenue,” Coderre said.
Lambert, support staff union Local 1137 president, said the layoff of the lunch monitors would follow cuts in teacher assistant posts and custodians that eliminated 10 positions last year.
The reduced staffing already in place would make it difficult for custodians and maintenance personnel to fill in for the lunch monitors at lunch time, he noted.
“There is also a safety factor with the children,” Lambert added, while pointing to the reduced number of staff members in the schools.
When the panel took up the matter later in the meeting, School Committee member Christopher Roberts requested that the item be tabled for more study.
The problem facing the School Committee remains one where either the panel must “reduce expenses or increase revenues,” Roberts said. But while the layoff of the monitors would result in a spending cut, he said, he was willing to meet with School Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan to determine if savings could be found in another manner.
School Committee Chairman Anita McGuire-Forcier and School Committee member Vimala Phongsavanh had also raised concern over the loss of lunch monitors and joined Roberts in tabling the matter.
While a majority of the committee appeared to be unwilling to cut a service directly affecting children, the panel did approve Roberts’ and McGuire-Forcier's bid to seek changes in the medical benefits enjoyed by the school department's retired employees.
Roberts said he desired to send the retirees a letter noting that the city is facing “unprecedented” fiscal challenges and cash flow problems, and that those unresolved matters are threatening to put the city into state-managed receivership.
The School Committee also learned Wednesday that its unpaid transportation bills had prompted its bus contractor, Durham Transportation, to submit a letter to the department indicating all busing services would be terminated if the department's outstanding bill of more than $506,000 was not paid by April 5. The committee, in turn, moved to put off consideration of a contract extension with the company until the unpaid bill is resolved.
Roberts said it may be necessary to require retirees, who currently do not pay a co-payment on their medical coverage, to accept one as help in the city's efforts to solve its budget crisis. The court-appointed receiver for Central Falls put retiree benefits changes into place in that community that were more severe than the savings being sought from local retirees, according Roberts. Changing the benefit structure for the school department's 200 retirees has been repeatedly raised by Mayor Leo T. Fontaine as a potential savings for the city. Roberts said the city currently pays about $2 million annually to provide the coverage.
“I would hope we could come to amicable terms,” Roberts said, suggesting savings for the city could be negotiated with the group. The alternative would be for the city to impose the change and then seek to resolve any challenge of the move in court, according to Roberts.
Phongsavanh said she would be willing to support sending the letter but only as a first step in a dialog with the retirees.
“I would vote in favor of this to get the conversation rolling,” she said. The panel's five members subsequently voted to send the retirees a letter seeking such discussion.
While talking about the many issues confronting the panel on Wednesday during committee member comment, Phongsavanh said she has become concerned about the tone of the discussion in the community regarding school matters and suggested that the panel has been putting all of its energies into budget concerns rather than the educational issues facing students.
All too often in recent months the discussions of school matters have carried an undertone of hatefulness toward the parties involved and that is not the example the committee or community should be giving its young people, Phongsavanh offered.
“We need to bring credibility back to the city and bring pride back to the city, and move our community forward,” she said.
Donlon, who had joined Phongsavanh and School Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau in turning down a request from Roberts and Forcier for a State Police review of the school department's budget deficit and past administrative leadership, said he believed the school department's budget problem has been and remains a lack of sufficient funding to meet student needs.
“There is no misappropriation of money. No money is missing,” said Donlon, a retired city juvenile detective. “We just don't have the money; that is the problem,” he said.

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