WOONSOCKET — The School Department’s projected $2 million 2010-2010 budget deficit is expected to be discussed by city and state budget officials during a meeting at the state Department of Administration today.
The finding of a new city deficit resulted from an annual audit of municipal and school spending for the fiscal year ending June 30 and was aired last Thursday during a meeting of city and school officials at Harris Hall.
City auditing consultant Braver PC found the $55.5 million municipal side of the city’s $116 Fiscal year 2011, including public safety, city hall departments, public works and bond service on capital projects, to have ended with a $435,000 surplus for the budget year. But, the School Department’s $60.2 million budget, including $12.5 million in city funding and $47.6 million in state aid and federal stimulus funding was found to have been overspent by between $2.2 million to $2.7 million.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said after Thursday’s joint meeting of City Council and School Committee, he believes the finding will require the School Department to created a plan addressing the past deficit in the school department’s current, level-funded budget.
That step may well be ordered by the state Department of Revenue and Department of Administration as a result of today’s meeting, according to Fontaine.
“There could be a need to budget a plan paying back the deficit over five years,” Fontaine said.
If corrective action is not taken, the city could face another reduction in its already reduced bond rating for city debt.
The fact that the city worked out even more significant budget problems last year with an $11.5 million deficit bond covering past municipal and school deficits could put additional pressure on the city to resolve the new deficit finding before the close of the current fiscal year, according to Fontaine.
This time, Fontaine said, the state could decide to appoint a state overseer to run city finances, much as it did recently regarding the city of East Providence’s deficit from school spending.
That step would affect how the City of Woonsocket operates but would still be a lesser form of state control than the move into receivership that followed the City of Central Falls’ failure to balance its budget, according to Fontaine.
The biggest problem facing the city and school department is how to cut costs in the current budget with just six months remaining in the current fiscal year.
“Everyone knew going into this fiscal year that we could not afford to suffer any new deficits, and yet here we are,” Fontaine said.
The school department’s new Superintendent of Schools Giovanna Donoyan faced questions from council members and City Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III over what steps she will support in balancing this year’s budget if a preliminary audit of fiscal 2011-2012 expected in the next few weeks shows the potential for a new deficit this year.
The department has not yet appointed a deputy superintendent to the vacancy left by Mark Garceau’s departure to a position with the state Department of Education, and that post was raised as one possible savings if left unfilled. Donoyan, however, maintained that the state, which provides most of the department’s revenue, may require that position be maintained due to its role in ensuring student achievement.
City Council President John F. Ward noted that given the cuts the school department has already undertaken in recent years all that remains for significant cuts would be teachers that are in the classroom filling the requirements of the state’s Basic Education Plan.
“You can’t lay off teachers in classrooms and you can lay off teacher aides required by an Individual Educational Plan,” Ward, a former school committee member, told his council peers. There is also little savings available through cuts to extracurricular activities and sports, where savings have also been sought previously.
The city and the school department have argued for additional state funding to Woonsocket to assist the community in its greater student needs and that may once again remain as a major focus of local efforts to solve the budget crisis permanently, according to city officials.
For now, Donoyan said she will await the final figures on the school department’s red ink before proposing steps to address it.
“When I hear talk about cutting to the bone, we are already beyond cutting to the bone, we are at the bone marrow,” she said. “Let’s put it this way,” she added. “I will not cut bone marrow. There really is nothing left to cut.”
Donoyan said the discussion with the Council members and the School Committee was significant because it gathered city officials together to work on the problem.
That could help in an effort to convince the state that Woonsocket deserves of more school support, according to the superintendent.
“We are always going to be underfunded as a city and we can’t take it anymore, we are crippled,” she said. Whatever solution is found, Donoyan said she does not plan to let it come at the expense of the education of local students.
“The fact remains that we to have a certified teacher in front of all of our students and I am not going to allow that to be watered down,” she said.