Newport school leaders make the case for consistent budget increases

NEWPORT – Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain renewed her plea before the City Council this week to provide the School Department with a predictable annual amount of funding for its operations.

For her and Ron Gonsalves, the schools’ business and finance director, that amount would be a 2% increase each year, year after year.

“We need some predictability in what we may be getting, what we may have,” Jermain told the council.

Newport Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain.

Newport Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain.

A steady annual increase would be a new business model for the School Department. For the current 2021-22 school year, the department received a 1% percent increase in the local allocation from the City Council. For the past 2020-21 school year, there was a 0% increase.

The 2019-20 school year was an outlier, when the School Department received a 4% increase from the city. In the previous two school years the department received increases of 1.19% and 1.5% respectively.

For the past five years, the average increase in the City Council’s appropriation for the schools has been 1.54%, according to Jermain’s presentation Wednesday evening.

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In most years, city budget discussions are tension-filled affairs in the spring as the deadline for putting together a municipal budget approaches. The fiscal year extends from July 1 one year to June 30 the following year. So the council typically would vote in June, 2022, for example, for the 2022-2023 city and school budgets, also called the fiscal year 2023 budget.

Jermain asked for this week’s joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee, so there would be plenty of time to go over the schools’ finances and take questions.

“I’ve got to tell you, this is great,” she told the council. “We are not at the 11th hour. We don’t have two weeks to make a final decision. We have an opportunity to talk with you and share with you our thinking. At the same time, we appreciate getting feedback from you and what your thoughts are.”

This was an initial budget workshop, so there were no commitments from council members on the proposal and not a lot of discussion, although Councilwoman Jamie Bova said she was open to the idea of providing a predicable amount of funding for the schools.

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Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Councilwoman Kathryn Leonard were not present, as well as School Committee member Robert Leary.

The current school budget for the 2021-2022 school year is $44.5 million. Of that total amount, $27.2 million is the local appropriation from the City Council. State aid adds another $14.9 million. The rest of the school budget is tuition paid by the other communities that send students to the Newport Area Career & Technical Center; federal aid; and a variety of other sources such as a Medicaid payments for student health expenses, a trust fund, and school rental income.

Most of the total budget, $37.4 million or 84.25%, goes towards salaries and benefits, since providing educational services is the mission of the schools and it is personnel who provide those services.

Councilman Charlie Holder asked how the proportion of the budget for salaries and benefits in the Newport school district stacked up against other school districts in the state.

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Jermain said after Holder asked the question and a little later during the presentation, that she could not get Holder’s question out of her mind. She promised to research the matter and provide answers to the council.

“Are there certain benchmarks for public school districts as far as salaries?” she asked. “Are we over, under? We will look into these kinds of things.”

Complicating the school budget for the coming school year are three significant federal payments totaling almost $10 million that the school district received the past two years as part of COVID relief funding Congress provided nationwide. Some of this funding has not been allocated to the schools yet by the state.

The payments are called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. They were allocated to each state in the same proportion as their federal Title I, Part A grants.

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First came the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act in March 2020. From this package, Newport schools received a total of $752,774 in ESSER I funding. That initial payment was used to support student services and other expenses such as workman’s compensation insurance for the 2020-2021 school year that ended on June 30 this year, Gonsalves said.

Additional ESSER II funding was allocated through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of December 2020. Of this, $3.052 million was allocated for Newport public schools and is being distributed by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Newport has had its spending plan approved. The money is funding educational programming to improve academic performance. The School Department is working with outside agencies. All the ESS
ER II funding must be expended by Sept. 30, 2022, or returned.

Finally, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) authorized in March of this year ESSER III payments of $6.9 million to Newport public schools. The spending plan for that money is still being put together by the school district and also must be approved by RIDE. That funding must be spent by Sept. 30, 2023, or returned.

Since most of the money was granted to help students overcome the learning loss they suffered during the pandemic, and now has restrictions on how the money can be used, it should not be used to cover operating expenses, the school officials said.

The danger of using this one-time federal funding to fill ongoing operating expenses is that in following school years when the money is no longer there, there is a built-in school budget deficit, Jermain has pointed out in all recent school budget discussions.

Jermain and Gonsalves made it clear that they are hoping to set up a long-term local budgeting process that will carry the schools financially well into future years.

“If we truly believe in funding our schools, how do make that investment in our schools?” Jermain asked. “We’re looking for a funding model that is sustainable and allows the School Department to plan strategically. The model we have right now is not a sustainable good business model. It’s a ‘What if?’ ”

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport, RI, school budget: Leaders make the case for annual increases