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$69.8 million school budget gets first approval

May 24, 2012

WOONSOCKET — It took multiple meetings and a line-item-by-line-item spending review but on Wednesday the School Committee finally came to terms on how much money it needs to spend during the 2012-2013 school year.
Four members of the panel gave a unanimous first passage to a budget of $69.8 million after School Committeeman Christopher Roberts made a final round of adjustments based on his meetings with the School Administration and City Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III.
The budget will require a second and final passage before being sent on to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and the City Council. A session to consider that approval is expected to be set when School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier returns from an out-of-state conference on labor and management issues she is attending along with School Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan and Woonsocket Teachers Guild President Jeff Partington. Middle School Principal Patrick McGee served as acting superintendent for the session.
Roberts offered a change dropping the budget's funding for deficit reduction from the $2 million included last week to a $1.2 million figure recommended by Bruce while explaining the change will allow school officials a “little bit of a bumper,” against unforeseen budget increases before the city's completes action on next year's budget. Roberts also informed his peers that a $280,000 cost for middle school “other professional services” questioned at the panel's last budget meeting had been identified as tuitions for students attending an out of district special needs program. And the committee member also recommended that an $89,481 assistant principal salary identified in the high school's salary line items was in fact the salary for the director of the school's progressive E-learning program and should be retained in the budget.
After tabulating the final changes considered by the four committee members, Roberts said he was prepared to support the adjusted $69.8 million spending plan as the department's budget for the coming year.
“It represents a much more accurate picture of what the district needs,” he said.
Before the panel voted Committee Vice Chair Vimala Phongsavanh, sitting as chair in Forcier's absence, noted the budget review had been a lengthy process but also a necessary one.
“It needed to get done to ensure that we have an honest and accurate budget,” she said.
The committee began the budget review with the help of a retired school finance director, Dina Dutremble, and the B&E Consulting firm after facing a projected $7 million deficit in the current school budget. The red ink this year follows a $2.2 million deficit in the department's 2010-2011 budget and has sparked significant criticism of school department by members of the City Council, the city administration and city taxpayers.
School Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau noted that criticism while pointing to the city's decision two years ago to cut the school department's budget to its available revenues of $59 million as a contributing factor in the budget problems.
The city took the school department to court to set the $59 million budget figure after noting the state had cut its state aid support as a result of its own fiscal problems. The council then approved a similar figure for the following school budget, according to Nadeau.
“We didn't come in with a budget of $59 million,” Nadeau said. “It was cut and we were cut by the city and taken to court,” she said. The City Council approved the school department's budget at $59 million and “knew it could not be sustained,” she said. The School Department has sought to counter the reduction of state funding support for local schools by filing a court challenge to the state's school funding system that remains pending, according to Nadeau.

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