WOONSOCKET — A spending freeze, a hiring freeze and the termination of the Feinstein Learning Academy for disruptive students are at the top of Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan’s list in a plan ordered by the state’s revenue director to eliminate a $2 million-plus deficit in the School Department’s 2011 budget.
Donoyan submitted the plan yesterday to State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly and state Auditor General Dennis Hoyle, in keeping with the deadline laid down by the state officials during an emergency meeting Monday.
Though the final numbers are not in, Braver PC has pegged the deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30 to be in the range of $2.2 to $2.6 million. The school department is required to execute a corrective action plan to eliminate the deficit in the months ahead because the city is already under a type of state financial oversight after borrowing $12 million earlier this year to erase deficits incurred during prior budgets.
The city was warned that further deficits could translate into stricter oversight of its finances, including the imposition of a state monitor – a prospect Gallogly invoked again earlier this week.
In an interview yesterday, Donoyan said the new deficit was incurred during the administration of her predecessor, former Schools Supt. Robert Gerardi, and didn’t go into details about how.
But she said she was confident that Gerardi’s decisions were in the best interest of students and that taxpayer funds weren’t squandered or mishandled.
“No one here was abusing funds,’ she said. “The deficit is here because we do right by educating our kids.”
Nevertheless, Donoyan said “a deficit is a deficit” and pledged to live up to her responsibility to manage the elimination of it.
The details may not be pretty.
In the two-page synopsis of the plan she tendered to state officials yesterday, the superintendent said there are simply few places left to cut to achieve the savings necessary during the current year to eliminate the deficit that occurred in the last.
Though she outlines immediate steps that might save about $400,000, Donoyan says that ultimately the solution may boil down to amortizing the deficit over five years, as well as an increase in taxpayer-generated revenues.
“While we recognize the economic hardship the citizens of the City of Woonsocket face, any corrective plan necessarily must involve either an increase in appropriation from the City, or a five year deficit reduction plan to amortize the deficit in five consecutive years commencing fiscal year 2012,” Donoyan wrote.
But Donoyan outlined a series of steps she proposes as part of the corrective action plan, including the elimination of the Feinstein Learning Academy. The program, designed to mainstream disruptive students, has been in effect since 2006 and currently has 28 students in it, but it’s been deemed ineffective by Middle School Principal Patrick J. McGee.
“It is my recommendation, based on data, anecdotal observations, numerous meetings with the Feinstein staff, special education staff and the Woonsocket Middle School Administration, the Feinstein Learning Academy be dissolved for the 2012-2013 school year,” he said in a memo to Donoyan.
The program was conceived as a temporary detour for students with behavior issues, but the district’s experience is that lumping them all in the same program simply allows their problems to gain traction, says Donoyan.
“They kind of feed off each other,” she says.
Dropping the program could save $350,000 a year. Despite the fact that the program is named for one of the state’s leading philanthropists — Alan Shawn Feinstein — it runs on taxpayer dollars, Donoyan said.
The superintendent also proposes these measures:
? An immediate spending freeze on all non-essential purchases until further notice, with oversight by city Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III.
? An immediate hiring freeze on all unfilled positions
? A review of accounting procedures to see if any staff positions that should have been paid with federal appropriations were covered by local taxpayers.
? The hiring of an independent accounting firm with a “taxpayer accountability expert” who job will be to “restore public confidence” in the school department's financial health.
? The suspension of $379,000 worth of federal teacher development funds for carryover into the next fiscal year. School officials first must determine whether doing so would violate federal regulations before allowing the move.
Donoyan submitted the plan to the state after a closed-door meeting with Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and City Council President John Ward. Fontaine couldn’t be reached after the meeting, but Ward said later that he was satisfied that Donoyan had done everything possible in the short amount of time available to respond to the state revenue director in good faith.
Still, Ward said he was highly concerned about the deficit and that he views Donoyan’s response as the opening round of what promises to be a difficult and protracted effort to plug the hole in the school department’s budget.
Her proposal doesn’t even begin to address the issue of a possible deficit in the current fiscal year, only what’s happened previously, so there’s a chance the financial picture could worsen.
“Regardless of where they stand this year there’s a presumption they’re going to have to finance a deficit,” said Ward. “This is preliminary. It’s not a final product.”