WOONSOCKET – The School Committee will begin work on next year’s proposed budget in earnest this week when it considers what could amount to a $1.7 million reduction in school spending.
The panel’s budget subcommittee is expected to recommend approximately that amount in cost reductions after looking at a list of possible budget tightening moves that include several of the recommendations raised by the just completed B&E Consulting performance audit, School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said after subcommittee met Thursday.
“We went over some of B&E recommendations and we are figuring out what is the best way to balance the budget for the coming year,” Dubois said.
The department’s current budget of $59.7 million is viewed as balanced by both the school department and the city and some costs such as salaries and benefits are set for no increase under contract agreements worked out to reduce this year’s budget.
But Dubois said the committee is also aware that almost $3 million in one-time federal stimulus funding used to cover expenses in the current budget will not be available to the department next year, setting a gap that must be covered as part of the budget preparation process.
The city is considering increasing its contribution to schools by $400,000 as part of its efforts to improve its bond rating and there could also be additional money coming into the school department under the state’s new local aid funding formula, Dubois noted.
The difference between that increase and lost federal funding could be the sticking point in finalizing the 2011-2012 budget, according to the committee member.
The budget committee, made up of Dubois, School Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau, School Superintendent Robert J. Gerardi, Jr., School Business Manager Stacy Busby and Steve Lima representing the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition, has held several meetings on possible cuts and, for now, has ruled out seeking the elimination of all regular education transportation, sports and other school programs such as extra-curricular activities as possible reductions.
One of the biggest cuts that will be placed before the full committee would seek to adopt a B&E recommendation that the high school drop its so-called block schedule for longer class periods.
The school now operates under a four-block class arrangement that allows for 90-minute-long class times and academic courses that last a single semester so that students can earn more graduation credits in a year. The change was touted as a way to break with old teaching methods of the past when it was adopted in 1990s but B&E suggested the concept has not been shown to improve student performance at the high school and should be dropped for a traditional schedule of 45- to 50-minute long classes.
Dubois said the subcommittee is reviewing exactly how much could be saved by such a change and at the moment is looking at the possible reduction of 8 teachers at the high school if the proposal is approved.
The high school teachers would have to seek positions elsewhere in the district through bumping but Dubois said he hoped all would be retained under new positions for the coming year. The School Committee is required under state law to notify teachers of possible layoff for the coming year by March 1 and typically sends more notices to teachers than would actually be laid off because of the bumping labor rules.
Dubois said exactly how many positions would be eliminated by the schedule change is still being worked on by the school administration and more details on the proposal will be presented when the committee meets in the Hamlet Avenue middle school building on Wednesday.
The other reductions being looked at by the subcommittee include the elimination of some teacher assistants working in kindergarten classrooms and some custodial positions, also a recommendation raised by B&E in its report.
Dubois said he believes that generally the B&E audit cast the school department in a good light and its findings show that “there is not much fat or pork in the school budget,” he said. The report in fact pointed to the school department has operating efficiently in many areas and also to be served by dedicated employees who are committed to the city’s children.
There were recommendations in the audit that the school department believes would conflict with state education mandates, but as a concession to B&E’s work in finding additional savings, Dubois said the school department will be filing appeals to see if even those changes could be adopted in the coming year.
The full committee, which holds the final say on any changes that are made in the budget, will be presented with recommendations from the subcommittee offering $1.7 million in savings as a starting point, according to Dubois.
“We are going to present a balanced budget to the city and hopefully the committee will approve these changes,” he said.