School deficit reduced this year; cuts proposed for next year

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 1:30pm
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This year’s deficit and next year’s budget bookended the New Shoreham School Committee’s meeting on January 13. The committee was pleased to hear that the projected deficit for the 2019-2020 school year has been reduced to about $50,000, less than half of the initial amount. But the causes of the deficit are among the factors driving the budget discussions for 2020-2021.

“We are projecting ending Fiscal Year 2020 with a deficit of $50,044,” Block Island School Superintendent Michael Convery told the committee. As of Dec. 31, the projected net increase in spending for the current year is $50,044, a reduction of $27,813, or 35 percent, from the last financial report for November 30. Since the first deficit projection in September, the school administration has closed the spending gap by $82,618, or 62 percent, largely by freezing discretionary spending.

“While we have improved our overall deficit,” Convery continued, “we are projecting a larger deficit in salaries” than previously reported. “This is due to the addition of the full-time Teaching Assistant for the balance of the school year.” Interviews were held the day of the meeting. The salary line deficit is now projected at $20,599, about two-thirds of one percent above the $2,996,396 salary budget approved by the voters at the May 2019 Financial Town Meeting.

“We are projecting a savings in our HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling budget) line due to the discontinuation of our contract with Trane” because of the planned evaluation and upgrade of the school’s HVAC system, Convery added. “We are also projecting savings in various supply lines due to the spending freeze.” Trane’s service contract will also be cut from next year’s budget.

One puzzle in the spending report is an unexplained increase in electricity costs.

Usage is running about 3,000 kilowatt hours ahead of last year, according to Melanie Reeves, the school’s Finance Director. Convery, Reeves, Principal Kristine Monje and committee members could only speculate about causes for the overage, such as a classroom heater being fixed, or problems with air conditioning in the past summer.

Whatever the final deficit amount for this year, it will be covered by the school’s reserves, as Reeves confirmed in response to a question from committee member Jessica Willi.

Proposed cuts “are needed items”

At the School Committee’s first work session on the 2020-2021 budget on Jan. 6, Supt. Convery was asked to produce a list of possible cuts to be considered. Presenting the list on Jan. 13, he prefaced the discussion with, “All these items on the list are needed items, I want to stress that.”

Convery’s first recommendation was that the $124,000 expense for out-of-district tuition, minus Medicaid reimbursement received, be paid from the School Department’s uncommitted fund balances next year. He said paying the tuition from the fund balance would lower the school’s operating budget by $130,000.

An unanticipated $120,000 expense in the out-of-district tuition line is the largest single item contributing to this year’s deficit. The administration believes the payment will continue for one more year.

The second recommendation was to “eliminate the secondary principal,” currently John Canole. “I received a letter from Mr. Canole. He will not be with us next year,” Convery said. The resignation “was anticipated, but I actually have it.” Because the letter arrived the day of the meeting, it could not be added to the agenda. The School Committee will formally receive Canole’s resignation at a later meeting.

The superintendent also recommended eliminating the dental program, for a $7,500 savings. “Last year, due to whatever at the Medical Center, we did not get a contract and did not pay, did not participate in dental screening at the Medical Center last year as a result. We didn’t hear any feedback,” he said, “but no one complained that we didn’t do it last year. It was completely overlooked.”

Committee members, surprised at the suggestion, wondered aloud if the dental screening was required by state law. “I don’t think it is” required, said member Annie Hall, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

The Block Island School has offered dental screening for decades, from a time when, as Principal Kristine Monje put it, “students didn’t travel as much to the mainland to their own family dentists.” The dentist’s chair and equipment was housed in the school before the Medical Center facility was built in 1989.

School Committee Chair William Padien asked Convery for a history of actual spending on the dental contract over the last six to eight years before making a decision.

Other notable items on Convery’s list of possible budget cuts include: eliminating cultural activities ($6,230) and funding for student trips to Boston and to the CloseUp Washington program in alternate years ($5,400); moving the yearbook from an extracurricular activity to a course and eliminating the extracurricular stipend; and decreasing purchases of textbooks by $2,000 and library books by $2,500.

Health insurance premiums would increase overall by eight percent, not the 10 percent previously estimated; dental premiums will increase by six percent.

The possible cuts also include reducing funds for teachers’ travel to conferences by half to $1,500, reflecting the history of usage; eliminating professional development from the technology budget; decreasing the guidance counselor’s contract from 85 days in the school year to 80 days, as student schedules are now handled by another staff person; eliminating School Committee stipends, which the members have often declined; reducing the occupational therapist’s budgeted hours to match the actual usage; eliminating the fee for an engineering project, because students have not signed up for it; decreasing amounts for instructional, maintenance, and athletic supplies and equipment; and eliminating paint purchases.

To give the members and the administration more time to absorb the recommendations and do more research, the School Committee cancelled one budget workshop.

The budget discussion will continue at a meeting on Monday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. at the school.