Three months before the budget process begins for next year, the North Kingstown Town Council and School Committee met to discuss what is expected to be one of the .
“I’ve been in this business for the past 30 years and this is the absolute worst,” said North Kingstown Town Manager Michael Embury.
Monday night’s primary topic of conversation, or what Embury termed as the “900-pound gorilla in the room,” was pension reform — which Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is expected to introduce to the General Assembly Tuesday night.
North Kingstown’s contribution to the pensions would increase by $4.8 million if pension reform is not passed, Embury said. If it is passed, North Kingstown would still have a minimum contribution of $2.2 million to $2.6 million in additional funding. With a tax levy cap of four percent for next year — totaling a max levy of roughly $2.5 million — at least $2 million will need to be cut from the town budget if reform is not passed, he said.
“This isn’t a scare tactic. This is going to be catastrophic in some areas,” said Embury. “There’s no way around it.”
The forecast on the school side was just as bleak, as Superintendent Phil Auger expects to face a shortfall of at least a $2.9 million, which could be as high as $4.6 million depending on pension reform and state and local aid.
“This is going to radically transform what our schools like look and what our community looks like,” said Auger.
Auger predicts this year’s budget discussion will trump the heated budget discussions of recent years.
“Those debates were over $800,000 last year, and the year before that, $1 million,” said Auger. “This could obviously be several times that.”
Auger provided a list of possible cuts that could help make up the shortfall, including outsourcing custodial services; reducing bus service, clerical service, teachers and paraprofessionals; cutting extracurricular activities and the athletics program; raising class minimum enrollment for AP courses and more.
“The items on this list, I will do everything I can to protect because I feel they are critically important,” said Auger.
Another possible cut would be to eliminate the fifth grade band and strings programs.
“One of the gems of North Kingstown is our music, and our music program begins in fifth grade for many of our kids,” Auger said. “To start to have to pick away at that program would break a lot of people’s hearts.”
“We’re going to have to have a conversation about what it means to be an educated student in North Kingstown and that is going to be a very different conversation than what we’ve had any other year,” said School Committee Chairwoman Kimberly Page.
If the list of 15 potential cuts was implemented, Auger estimates it would save the district $2.7 million — short of the expected $2.9 million shortfall.
“I need another $200,000 and I don’t know where to go,” Auger said.
Town councilman Michael Bestwick suggested the sale of Davisville Elementary School, , as a short-term fix to make up the shortfall. Auger said he does not believe selling schools (Wickford Elementary School is also closed) would help much, and noted the building could become a “tremendous community center.” (Auger is set to speak with Davisville residents Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at Davisville Elementary School to discuss the future of the building.)
Auger and members of the School Committee also pointed to state mandates as obstacles in creating better budgets, including required bus monitors and mandates from the Rhode Island Department of Education. School Committee member Bill Mudge also suggested that North Kingstown should be exempt from paying into the charter school program because it’s a high-performing district.
“The public school system can’t do everything for everyone,” said Mudge, who believes the exemption could save the district $800,000. “But, our track record is pretty good.”
The Rhode Island General Assembly meets tonight to begin discussions on pension reform.