School committee struggles with salaries, cuts

Thu, 07/16/2020 - 6:00pm

At the School Committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14, two forces collided: contractual salary obligations to teachers and finding a way to pay for those obligations without cutting such programs as sports. The committee is also facing the as yet unknown final cost of re-tooling the Block Island School’s physical layout and scheduling for when it reopens in the fall.

School Supt. Mike Convery said that, after the union representing school teachers rejected a Memorandum of Agreement that would have deferred pay increases for a year, he would make another attempt to reach an agreement with the union before the School Committee meets again Monday, July 20. If no agreement is reached, committee members said they would have to cut further into a budget that has been whittled away at since the budget process began several months ago. If the MOA is not agreed to, members said they would need to cut an additional $86,000 from the budget. (A total of $62,000 would be saved if the teachers accepted the freeze, Convery said.)

The original budget proposed a nine percent increase over last year’s appropriation, but that was cut back to a 3.2 percent increase by the School Committee in a budget that was submitted to the town. After the shutdown and the slowing of the economy, the Town Council approved a final budget with a two percent increase to present to the voters at the Financial Town Meeting on July 27. The budget now sits at $5,172,384.

The School Committee wrangled over where the cuts could be made and proposed such items as teacher conferences, closing the weight room, and reducing some line items such as energy costs, knowing that it could be a cold winter and more money would actually be needed. If sports are not able to be played, the need for coaches would be reduced and savings could be found there.

After some of that discussion, Chair Bill Padien, with audible frustration in his voice, said, referencing the teachers’ union rejecting the MOA, “They have a job and there are people who don’t have jobs out here. It’s kind of annoying they wouldn’t consider the MOA or come back with a counter offer to make this work. It’s slapping the face of the community, when the community is stretching every dollar.”

“So the reason none of this stuff was on the table to cut was that we were hoping the teachers would take the pay freeze,” said Committee member Jessica Willi. “Now we’re back to the drawing board.” She said that Convery’s willingness to go back with another offer was being done “for the good of the school.”

After the meeting, Convery said that those School staff that are either town employees or have personal contracts with the district have accepted the pay freeze. There are 11 town employees, including teacher aids, secretaries, and custodians. Agreeing to the pay freeze saves $27,469, said Convery. There are five employees with personal contracts, including Convery, his assistant Laura Breunig, Finance Director Melanie Reeves, Principal Kristine Monje and the guidance counselor, who also did not take a pay raise, which will save an additional $9,108.

There were other obstacles at almost every turn

School Principal Kristine Monje said she has been pushing for a second middle and high school math teacher for years to strengthen the core math courses in the school and to offer new opportunities for students at the high school level. But this candidate would be hired at the highest step at $127,000 a year — which is about $30,000 more than the $96,357 that is in the current budget.

“That $30,000 is over and above the $86,000 we needed at the beginning of the meeting,” said Convery in a conversation with The Times after the meeting.

At the outset of the meeting, Convery detailed some of the changes that the school must make in order to open safely in the fall, but these costs are anticipated to be covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Support Act, known as the CARES Act.

The school will need hand sanitizers and hand-held screen temperature checking devices. Additional cleaning supplies will have to be ordered. There may have to be additional bus runs, Convery said. Lunch times may have to be staggered because students from one grade will go the cafeteria to pick up their lunches and bring them back to the classroom to eat. Hallways will be one-way only. Convery said the school was partnering with the Narragansett School system to purchase facemasks.

The new rules and regulations will impact families, as well. Students with colds and sniffles will no longer be able to attend class.

“Any student with a fever 100.5 or higher will be asked to stay home and not come to school. If they do, they will be sent home and go to the Medical Center to be tested and they will have to stay out of school for three to five days,” said Convery. He said that guidance came down from the state, but added that the regulations were “changing constantly.”

Looking at the year ahead, Convery said, “This is going to be very different.”