WOONSOCKET – The School Committee is set to consider a proposed school budget for 2013-14 that is roughly equal to its current spending of $67 million and, for the moment, absent of dramatic changes in programs and staffing.
The panel will take up a draft version of the budget being worked out by School Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan and the school department’s interim Finance Director Ralph Malafronte at its regular meeting Wednesday in the Hamlet Middle School building.
The Committee’s budget subcommittee members, Christopher Roberts and John Donlon, have already reviewed the proposal and the full panel considered it during a work session in the McFee Administration Building this week.
School Committeewoman Anita McGuire-Forcier said the draft proposal is still being revised and members of the panel have suggested an increase in out-of-district placements for special needs students of about $200,000 to the initial budget figure.
“It is not an exact figure at this point, it is a draft budget, but it looks close to what we had this year, even a little less,” Forcier said.
The initial figure of $65,347,290, before the addition of more out-of-district spending, represented a decrease of $322,669 from current spending, according to Forcier.
The proposal retains a half-day kindergarten program as a cost savings adopted in past budgets and does not expand the high school’s current six-period day to offer greater course scheduling opportunities.
Both items have been raised as desired goals by members of the School Committee even though current levels of school funding do not allow them to be added at the present time.
The draft budget also features a significant drop in medical benefits, down $1.9 million, but that has been recommended as appropriated by the stated-appointed Budget Commission running city fiscal affairs. The Budget Commission this week approved a plan to lower city healthcare costs by changing coverage options for retirees and those projected savings may be included in the medical insurance reduction.
Forcier, however, said members of the School Committee remain concerned that the reduction included in the proposal is too steep and more funding may have to be added to that line item before the Committee’s budget recommendation is finalized.
The draft budget also does not address the issue of closing a city elementary school as another cost-savings move, a proposal that had surfaced during Budget Commission review of the budget last summer when it overrode the School Committee to close the Fifth Avenue Elementary School in Fairmount.
Officials from the state Department of Education had also suggested the transfer of local fifth graders to a new Grade 5 and 6 Academy in one of the city’s two new middle schools, thereby allowing the closing of a school building such as Fairmount’s Coleman Elementary.
Forcier said she doesn’t know if that proposal may also come forward later in the budget process but believes the School Committee should be presented with all the details so that it could make a recommendation on the plan.
“I know the Budget Commission will be asking about it but we haven’t shown any information saying we are capable of doing that yet,” she said.
Creating a Grade 5 and 6 Academy over the current arrangement of fifth-grade classes being located in the existing elementary schools could come with higher transportation costs and other expenses, she noted.
The state’s projection had shown that there is space in the middle school buildings to accommodate the new academy. The buildings, constructed to replace a massive 1,600-student middle school at the city’s old high school and junior high school building at Park Place, each were designed to hold 800 students.
The Middle School had 422 sixth graders, 346 seventh graders and 354 eighth graders in attendance at the two buildings this year, according to Forcier.
The Coleman, Globe Park, Bernon Heights, Citizens and Leo A. Savoie elementary schools currently house the district’s 413 fifth-grade students, she noted.
Another issue as yet unresolved is the cost of programs needed to assist next year’s seniors not yet meeting state testing requirements for receiving their diplomas. School Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh has asked for a recommendation on how those students could be assisted beyond existing programs, but the current high school schedule of a six-period day offers few opportunities to place the assistance program within the school day.
“To do that, you would have to go to a seven-period day, which we don’t have money for,” Forcier said. That budget change would add another $1.2 million — a sum that could not be supported with current revenues, she said.
The Committee is expected to vote a budget recommendation on Wednesday but it remains to be seen whether a second vote will be needed. Forcier said that since the budget approval will only constitute a recommendation to the Budget Commission for its action on school spending, a second passage may not be needed this year.