East Providence Patch reported live from city hall during Tuesday night's school committee meeting. To balance the city budget, members voted to accept a B&E audit report that includes $3 million in proposed adjustments - including the elimination of half-day kindergarten, middle school sports, and classes that only attract a small group of students.
School committee members voted to study the fiscal impact of those adjustments before they made the recommended cuts. The school committee has already voted on many of the audit's recommendations, so far saving $1.5 million in next year's budget.
The audit also praised the department's highly successful special eduction program and urged administrators to hire essential staff, including a permanent superintendent and a director of special eduction services.
Read along to see how the meeting progressed.
6:37: Walter Edge of B&E Consulting, , said budget adjustments reduced East Providence's deficit to $275,473. The adjustments do not include the elimination of kindergarten and middle school sports. He and his partner Tom Sweeney met with budget commission members this morning.
6:41 p.m. - Member Chrissy Rossi asked if the city side, in addition to the school department, was evaluated. Edge said the city moved savings to help the school department deficit. He also said they presented their findings to the state-appointed budget commission; those members will decide whether or not the firm's services are further needed.
6:47 p.m. - According to Edge, the budget commission is "leaning toward" using the school department's projection of receiving $200,000 in state aid in fiscal year 2013 to calculate the budget deficit reduction plan. Based upon new information, Edge was told by state officials that $592,000 would be given to East Providence in fiscal year 2013. According to Mary King, finance director for the school department, Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) advised the department to use a more frugal figure since state officials haven't begun to crunch numbers for fiscal year 2013.
6:52 p.m. - Edge said that if the adjustments "come to fruition," the city will have a balanced budget.
7:01 p.m. - Tom Sweeney, also with the consulting firm, said policies should be updated. The elementary schools have about a 90 percent efficiency regarding class sizes; they are almost capped at a maximum student/teacher ratio. The middle schools are at a lower efficiency level. At the high school, he suggests higher level foreign language programs be consolidated. He also recommends that the next year scheduling be completed by March or April to plan out next year's class plan. "This is not an easy thing to do, but it should be concentrated on, to work toward their goal of 90 percent."
7:15 p.m. - "I do not hate all-day kindergarten," said Sweeney. Depending on the economic background of some students, all-day kindergarten can be a "lifesaver" for some students, he said. The program was originally a federally funded Title I program. However, the program cannot be federally funded at this point. "You have to convince the community if you want all-day kindergarten."
7:21 p.m. - Sweeney recommends that the school committee drop middle school sports because there are community-supported programs for those student age groups. But, he recommends high school sports remain because alternative outlets are not available. "You need to understand how much those programs cost," he said.
7:26 p.m. - The department is severely understaffed, said Sweeney, noting clerical personnel is handling sophisticated financial and communication tasks and a superintendent is needed. He also said staff should be regulated under a contract and a salary study be conducted. "It really needs to be looked at by a third party."
Interim Superintendent Edward Daft said that all staff "is pitching in and it doesn't do them justice to recognize them." Sweeney agreed and said "people are doing work that is unbelievable" but that committee members "couldn't afford to wait" to implement key players.
7:33 p.m. - Sweeney said Early Learning Center has a great pre-school and recommends that special education students be intergrated in the program. About 13 special education students were unaccounted for in the past and he said special education personnel were overqualified and paid "heavy salaries." "Your special ed got out of control." Though, he said, Individualized Education Plans (IEDs) have been reduced by 17 percent. "You should be proud," he said. To continue progress and reduce costs, a director of special education is required.
7:47 p.m. - Committee Chairman Charles Tsonos asked why the state considered East Providence to have an unusually high special eduction roster. Sweeney said parents tend to move to communities that have good special education programs; Massachusetts has less strict policies. Sweeney also said many parents ask for their students to be evaluated; teachers can recommend they be placed in a program for various reasons.
8:00 p.m. - According to the city manager, the budget commission will stay in East Providence until they complete outlined tasks, including improving the bond rating. The meetings will be moved to the afternoon; officials make an effort to be transparent, though meetings are not technically open to the public.
Committee members took a recess.
8:09 p.m. - It is reported that the House and Senate Finance Committee heard the bill that would expediate the delivery of state aid to bridge a budget shortfall. The motion will go to the floor tomorrow on Thursday and then be sent to the governor's office to be approved. The state will end the year with an $85 million dollar surplus. The student funding formula will fluctuate from year to year.
A budget subcommittee has been proposed by the state's Auditor General. Chairman Tsonos asked what are the benefits of an audit subcommittee. Committee member Luisa Abatecola noted that the finance director should be the one who predicts budget shortfalls.
"Perhaps if we have a budget subcommittee we wouldn't be in this position," said Tsonos. "We're in this position due to years of squandering money," replied member Chrissy Rossi, noting the school department went years without a finance director. She said staff can't handle being a part of a budget subcommittee.
8:40 p.m. - The National Grid gas bills are in excess of $100,000 a year, according to reports. Schools and the city have competitive electricity policies, said the city manager.
8:52 p.m. - The affirmative action policy is passed by members.
Chrissy Rossi would like to see a fiscal impact statement before Oldham School is closed.
8:57 p.m. - Abatecola makes a motion to accept the report from B&E Consulting pending research regarding proposed cuts. The motion is passed by the council but makes an amendment to assume the state will allocate $200,000 in state aid toward fiscal year 2013. This report is expected to eventually be used to create a five year deficit reduction plan.
9:04 p.m. - Member Stephen Furtado said he has a "reflection" to add to his publicized letter to the editor.
9:06 p.m. - A middle school coach says she disagrees with Sweeney's reccomendations. AYSO and middle school soccer is not the same thing, she says.
A teacher said they have been operating without a contract for three years; they are the lowest paid in state.
9:14 p.m. - Members went into executive session to discuss collective bargaining agreements.