When it comes to educating Jamestown students in grades nine to 12 at , local leaders agree it’s a good idea — publicly, at least. But privately, a few officials and residents have voiced reservations, leaving many to worry that sharp-edged discussions could drive Jamestown — and its more than $2 million annual tuition payments — away.
Aside from revenue, the approximately 200 Jamestown students at the 1,604-student high school increase the student base, enabling more advanced placement and language classes, and bolsters clubs and sports, according to NK Superintendent Phil Auger.
“We get many benefits,” Auger said of the Jamestown students, who have been educated in North Kingstown since the 1970s. “I’d be really worried to see Jamestown leave our district.”
That may be a real possibility, according to Julia Held, Jamestown’s non-voting North Kingstown School Committee member. While saying the town is happy with the quality of education Jamestown students receive, she said other districts are an option.
“The rhetoric by some members of your School Committee and Town Council that NK taxpayers are subsidizing Jamestown students, and that Jamestown is perceived as not paying a ‘fair share’” leads some in Jamestown to worry about their students’ future, Held said. “There may be other schools that would serve our students at least as well, and we would be negligent in our educational and fiduciary responsibilities if we didn't look at them.”
Jamestown pays North Kingstown $10,103 for each general education student, $36,575.08 for each special education student and $49,991 for each English as a Second Language student. The amount Jamestown pays, how that fee is determined, and how the School Committee spends the funds has sparked questions and rancor from School Committee member Bill Mudge and a small group of local observers.
Under the 10-year agreement signed in 2001 by Jamestown and North Kingstown school committees, tuition is negotiated every year for the following year based what it currently costs to educate additional students at the high school.
Mudge has said since 2003 that formula is wrong. He believes the contract should factor in more overall school system costs and be based on estimated future costs.
A majority of the School Committee, which discusses contract details in executive session, has so far disagreed.
Mudge, who was absent when this year’s contract was approved in April, and Joe Thompson, who voted to approve the contract, bring it up often at committee meetings.
The School Committee attorney has repeatedly told Thompson that he cannot “revote” the decision, and School Committee Chairwoman Kimberly Page regularly rules comments about the approved contract out of order.
Mudge and some Town Council members dislike another contract feature. In 2001, when the high school opened, the NK-Jamestown school agreement obliged Jamestown to make proportional payments toward the high school bond debt. Those bond payments went to the school system instead of the town, which services the debt. North Kingstown Town Manager Mike Embury says he has “no idea why it never came up” at council meetings. Council member Chuck Brennan said he has not seen any interest among council members to raise the issue.
On July 27, Embury asked Jamestown School Superintendent Marcia Lukon for $262,702 to cover Jamestown’s “share” of this year’s high school bond debt. Embury says Lukon and the Jamestown School Committee chairperson responded "that they had a new agreement with the NKSC and that any concern about the bond payments should be taken up with the NKSC."
For 2011-12, North Kingstown school negotiators won a tuition increase without including bond repayment as part of its calculations. “Jamestown does not have the benefit of the high school building for eternity. North Kingstown does," Auger said.
On Sept. 13, over objections by Mudge and Thompson, the School Committee voted to have Auger and Business Director Ned Draper include rising pension payments, but not the bond debt, in calculations for next year’s contract.