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Consultants present $64.6M budget

May 12, 2012

WOONSOCKET — The School Committee received a draft budget plan of $64.6 million from its financial consulting firm on Friday but whether that sum will stick as a final budget figure for the coming school year remains to be seen.
Walter Edge of B&E Consulting presented the draft budget to the panel during a special meeting in the Hamlet Avenue Middle School while noting that more work could be done to refine the spending plan if city officials wish to allot additional time to the effort.
“I am amazed that we could get to this level of preparation and how quickly we did it,” Edge said while explaining the accelerated effort his company and Dina Dutremble, the retired school department business manager also working on local school finances, put in to complete the budget proposal.
Edge's budget work began with a $59.6 million budget figure approved for schools in the current city budget and added adjustments identified by Dutremble in her work, accounting for a projected $7 million deficit in that plan. He also re-evaluated the department's line items and reassigned budget charges to clarify actual expenditures.
Edge said he could assure the committee that between 80 and 85 percent of the cost projections in the budget were hard and fast figures and offered that a more defensible budget plan could be achieved with additional review.
“There is a lot of complexity as to how your budget is set up,” he said of the mixed batch of accounting practices he encountered while working through the budget with Dutremble. The school department's budget data is spread out over several different information systems maintaining personnel, accounting, and payment accounts, according to Edge. Part of the work Dutremble and B&E Consulting have been conducting for the department is the creation of a unified system of accounts that will make future budget work easier, Edge noted.
The Fiscal 2013 budget proposal submitted to the committee includes all teaching positions in the current budget as well as adjustments for step pay increases and benefits projections. It does not include a restoration of all-day kindergarten or the elementary restructuring changes that School Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan proposed last month.
Edge told the panel that it could use the budget projection as a framework and make changes either in reductions of staff or additions in areas such as materials and supplies or capital expenditures as budget amendments. The draft spending plan did not include capital items since no proposed increases were submitted to the budget consultants, he noted.
Donoyan suggested the committee consider adding some capital funding during the proposal's review, given the department's experience with replacing the Bernon Heights Elementary School boiler last winter.
The spending plan counts on a $1.8 million increase in the city's current $12.9 million contribution to schools and the approximate $4 million increase Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he would like to see added to the school department's $42 million in state aid in the coming year.
The budget proposal does not cover the department's annual $10 million in federal grant funding. The department's federal aid had been boosted by upwards of $2 million in one-time federal stimulus funding in past years but will face a significant reduction in the coming fiscal year, according to school officials.
Edge maintained that part of the school department's past deficit issues were caused when positions created with federal funding support on a one-year basis were not removed from the budget when that funding was no longer available. The department has also had difficulty in budgeting its heath care costs, given the self-insurance make-up of its plan, according to Edge. The budget prepared by Edge reduces health care cost estimates for the coming year given the experience the department recorded in providing its coverage in the past year.
The School Committee could choose to make some position reductions as a part of its work on the budget or by considering program shifts to make better use of available space in local schools. Donoyan's plan offering some program realignments that would have resulted in the closing of the Fifth Avenue Elementary School and conversion of Bernon Heights Elementary to a Grade 5 and 6 school, were strongly opposed by local residents, parent groups and staff members of those schools.
School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier said Edge's budget draft would be forwarded to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and members of the City Council in advance of today's scheduled work session on the budget at the Hamlet Middle School Building. The noontime session was planned with an opportunity for the committee to give the first of two required passages to the budget plan by the end of the meeting but Forcier said she believes more work will be needed before a vote can be taken.
“I'm personally not comfortable voting on the budget (today),” Forcier said of the draft proposal.
School Committee member Christopher Roberts requested an electronic copy of the budget proposal from Edge so that the Committee could add any changes worked out during the discussion with Council members today.
Edge said he would forward the electronic version before the meeting and would be available at the meeting to answer questions raised by the participants.

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