WOONSOCKET — While the Woonsocket Education Department is projecting a modest surplus, there is at least one area of the budget that’s going in the wrong direction financially: Out-of-district tuitions.

Checking in on spending trends as the fiscal year winds down, the School Committee recently learned from Finance Director Brad Peryea that the budget for out-of-district tuitions is presently overspent by about $328,000.

Schools Supt. Patrick McGee told members of the school committee that the spigot of dollars flowing out of the district is driven largely by the exit of students exercising their option to enroll in career and technical programs in other school districts, including Lincoln, Ponaganset and Cumberland.

“But mostly it’s been Cumberland,” said McGee. “That’s the dilemma we’ve been dealing with.”

Under a program that was launched during the era of former Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, predecessor of Angelica Infante-Green, students have the right to enroll in career and technical programs, or CTEs, outside the community in which they reside – even if their hometown district offers the same programs.

The Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center offers a “very successful” curriculum of 11 different programs, McGee said, but Cumberland’s menu includes some options that WACTA does not, including law, said McGee.

It doesn’t take many kids to drive up out-of-district tuition costs to an uncomfortable level. Assuming a state reimbursement of about $13,000 per student – roughly what the district receives from the state to educate one child – the over-budget sum could represent fewer than 30 students the WED didn’t anticipate paying for.

But for McGee it’s already uncomfortable enough.

“I had a very frustrating summer,” he said during the School Committee’s most recent meeting on Feb. 24. “I was extremely cranky. It seemed like I was getting daily families that were unenrolling at Woonsocket High School and electing to go to other districts.”

It was School Committee Vice Chairman Donald Burke who triggered the discussion about out-of-district tuitions, saying he was troubled by the scale of the unbudgeted costs.

“Is the education department looking at the reasons why a lot of these students are opting out of Woonsocket schools?” Burke asked.

Did it have anything to do with the pandemic?

Perhaps, School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget suggested, more families were shopping around for school districts with in-person learning. The WED didn’t start gradually funneling WHS students back to classrooms for any amount of in-person learning until the last week of January.

But McGee doesn’t think so. Most of the unexpected requests for out-of-district placements came before school districts had filed their reopening plans with the Rhode Island Department of Education in late July.

McGee said the district is already working on a plan to address the apparent demand for out-of-district placements. He said WHS Principal Carnell Henderson and his leadership team are developing a vocational program that will capitalize on some of the school’s unique strengths, such as the music and theater arts program.

“We really do have to become more competitive with the surrounding districts,” McGee said.

But Bourget was hopeful that the trend will subside – along with the pandemic, presumably – before the start of the new school year in September.

“Hopefully next year things calm down,” said Bourget. “I’m hopeful it’s the pandemic that’s pushing the movement of our students.”

Despite some accounts running over budget, Peryea said the WED is projecting a surplus of about $450,000 in its roughly $88.3 million budget. One area where the pandemic is paying off is in salaries for substitutes. The district is on track to spend about $320,000 less than planned for that.

Either because there have been too few substitutes to go around because of the increase in remote teaching, or because they haven’t been needed as much because there are fewer in-person classes, the result has been savings for the WED, according to Peryea.

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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