WOONSOCKET – The arrival of deadlines for school department work on the annual school budget have brought with them another reminder that city fiscal affairs are in the hands of a state-appointed Budget Commission.
School Committee member Anita McGuire-Forcier pointed out during the panel’s meeting on Wednesday that a draft school budget has traditionally been submitted to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine for his review on Feb. 28.
But as Forcier’s peers confirmed, the School Comm-ittee budget subcommittee has yet to begin meeting this year, given the control of local finances by the Budget Commission.
The lack of work on the department’s budget surfaced as the panel considered a second and final vote on a committee bylaw change, reducing School Committee meetings from two to one a month. Members of the panel, suggesting the pending budget work made a good argument for keeping the traditional schedule of two committee meetings a month, moved to reject the change by a 4-1 vote — with only School Committee Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavanh in favor.
“I’ve heard from a lot people that they are interested in what is going on with the school department and want two meetings a month,” School Committee member Eleanor Nadeau said while explaining she had rethought her initial support for the bylaw change.
And, School Committee member John Donlon, who serves on the budget subcommittee with fellow School Committee member Christopher Roberts, pointed to the pending budget work as his own reason for reconsidering his initial support of a reduced committee meeting schedule.
“With the budget coming up, we are going to need two meetings a month,” he said.
Although the department would already have taken a vote on a proposed school department budget by now, Supt. Giovanna Donoyan explained that the Budget Commission process has caused an adjustment of the past budget deadlines.
“The Budget Commission has spoken to our Finance Department and given us an extension until the first week of April,” she said. The extension will allow the department to get firmer figures on baseline budget numbers than have been used in the past, Donoyan noted. Mayor Leo Fontaine’s administration has also been afforded additional time so that it may work with more accurate baseline numbers, she added.
The lull in school budget work follows what turned out to be a tumultuous budgeting process last year as school and city officials and the Budget Commission sought to address $7 million in overspending of the department’s $60 million budget with significant spending cuts and search for new revenues.
That budget process started off with the School Committee laying off its 500-member teaching staff last February to allow flexibility in reducing staffing costs and then saw the Budget Commission override the Committee’s decision not to close the Fifth Avenue Elementary School as one of its budget reductions. All but a handful of the laid-off teachers were rehired before the new school year began.
The city budget work concluded in mid-August with the Budget Commission approving $67 million in spending for schools, a significant increase over the $60 million approved by the city the previous year but one believed to have covered the School Department’s structural operating deficit of the past.
The budget will likely increase again this year due to contractual costs such as health care, fuel and electricity or employee costs, but Donoyan pointed to the work completed on the current budget as potentially making that process easier.
“It really shouldn’t be that hard to do,” Donoyan said.
Nadeau and Forcier disagreed with that view, however, noting the fiscal problems the city still faces as the Budget Commission works on a five-year plan to balance local spending.
The school department dropped the high school’s block schedule for a six-period school day as part of its cutting last year and yet now must find time in the school day to offer testing assistance to 160 high school students needing to meet state assessment requirements in order to graduate in 2014.
“Some of the decisions we made probably were not good decisions and should be revisited,” Nadeau said.
Phongsavanah asked Donlon and Roberts to meet on the budget prior to the next School Committee meeting so a schedule of budget review sessions can be set. Donoyan is also expected to get an update from the Budget Commission on its plans for finalizing next year’s school budget for that meeting.