School budget reduced in new report
Careful management by the Block Island School administration has helped to reduce the projected deficit for the current school year by 41 percent, making the shortfall about $78,000 more than the school’s approved budget. But, as the School Committee members stressed to the Town Councilors who came to their Dec. 17 meeting, the items that drove the unexpected spending increases this year will have to be planned for in the 2020-2021 school budget.
As of Nov. 30, the projected net increase in spending is now $78,257, a reduction of $54,408, or 41 percent, from the September projection of $132,662. The new deficit amount is 1.49 percent more than the $5,242,793 budget approved by the School Committee and the voters at the May 2019 Financial Town Meeting.
Superintendent Michael Convery confirmed that discretionary spending is still frozen to help contain the deficit. And although the current year deficit is an immediate problem, the 2020-2021 school year budget is already in the works.
Each year, the School Committee hosts the Town Council at its December meeting for a “Pre-Budget Meeting” to highlight its spending priorities and preview, in Convery’s words, “upcoming obligations” the School Department knows will impact next year’s budget. Three of the overages were disclosed at previous School Committee meetings: salary and benefits increases in the “successfully negotiated three-year contract” with the teachers’ union; legal services spending to defend the school against litigation; and tuition for an out-of-district placement, which will be partially offset by an increase in Medicaid reimbursement.
Convery’s list of items that will have to be budgeted for in the new school year also included the cost of excavating soil contaminated by a heating oil leak in March 2019; upgrades to the school’s heating and air conditioning system; and repairs to the gymnasium.
“There are other increases, but those are our major issues,” Convery told the Town Councilors present. (Of the five councilors, only Chris Willi did not attend. Most stayed for the majority of the meeting.)
The committee and the superintendent stressed to the councilors that the salary and benefit overages this year and the increases in the next two years had been expected. The contract between the New Shoreham School Committee and the Teachers’ Association was still being negotiated when the budget was prepared last spring.
The financial report prepared for the meeting shows that for the current year through November 30, the updated deficit projections in salary, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and workers’ compensation premiums (together, $27,498) are more than offset by savings in medical and dental insurance premiums ($38,593) caused by several employees declining insurance available through the school.
School Committee Chair William Padien pointed out that the HVAC upgrades and other capital improvements that the school has committed to are in a five-year plan already approved by the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE). The school district is obligated to complete all the projects by June 2022. The state will reimburse a portion of each finished project’s cost after the school provides paid invoices and other documentation.
“Once one project is finished, then we get back 35 percent of that cost, which goes right into the next project,” Padien said. Repairs currently underway include the front façade, of the school and drainage in the rear. The gym’s exterior is on the list, and some interior panels may also need to be replaced with sturdier material that can withstand hits from indoor soccer practice, added Padien and Sam Bird, the town’s facilities manager.
Regarding the oil spill, Convery said that the school has asked the contractor several times to send an invoice for the excavation work. All the other expenses of fixing the leak and remediating the area have been paid, he said.
Legal services expenses for the current school year are now expected to total $12,000, $7,500 over the budgeted amount.
HVAC costs undetermined
Only a portion of the necessary HVAC upgrades are included in the plan approved by RIDE, Bird confirmed, responding to a question by outgoing Town Manager Ed Roberge. Replacing the boiler and control systems alone were budgeted at $390,000 when the school district submitted the project to RIDE in 2015, Bird said, and they must be completed by June 2022. Convery added that the total cost of the HVAC upgrades “will be substantially more than $300,000.”
Later in the meeting, the superintendent asked the Committee to approve the School Building Committee’s selection of the engineering firm of Garcia, Galuska and DeSouza to assess the existing HVAC system and develop a “schematic design” for its complete renovation, the first part of what the state has already approved.
Actual construction of the new HVAC system will be substantially more than the amounts already budgeted, Bird told the Committee. He expressed his hope that the reconfigured HVAC system will be able to use much of the existing equipment and piping. Either way, he explained, the design contract (for $37,000) is “a necessary first step” that must be completed before the firm can prepare the documents necessary for a construction bid package — which, he estimated, will be a separate contract for about the same amount.
The School Committee members were disappointed to realize that the total cost of the HVAC upgrade will be a large, undetermined number that still must be included in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school budgets. The Committee ultimately approved the recommendation to select Garcia, Galuska and DeSouza as the designers of the system, but only after lengthy discussion airing their concerns that the final cost of the renovations is unknown. The vote was unanimous, 4-0. (Member Kara Stinnett was not present.)
2020 meeting dates approved
The School Committee approved its schedule of regular monthly meetings for 2020 as presented, with the caveat that the calendar may be adjusted as needed. The meetings will be held at the school at 7:00 p.m. on the third Monday of each month, with some exceptions. The first two regular meetings will be January 13 and February 10 (both second Mondays).
The Committee also agreed to a calendar of meetings to develop the 2020-2021 school budget. In addition to the regular meeting on Jan. 13, budget workshops are planned for Monday, Jan. 6, Tues. Jan. 21, Mon. Jan. 27, and Tues. Feb. 4. Tentatively, the Committee plans to adopt the budget at its Mon. Feb. 10 regular meeting. The budget will then be forwarded to the town administration for consideration by the Town Council.