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Town, Schools to Face Multimillion Dollar Shortfalls

Both the town and school departments are anticipating big deficits next year.

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.

trudy1 October 18, 2011 at 08:10 PM
Once again we have a school superintendent who does not know the meaning of the word thrift. He'd prefer debt to selling something we don't need.
Dave October 18, 2011 at 08:58 PM
I think you need to read the article entilted "the Town's five white elephants", referring to the vacant municipal buildings we have around town. The School Committee can not sell that building, that's not within their authority. They would have to give it to the town, making it 6 white elephants. Let's give Dr Auger a chance before we label him unfairly and push him out of this town the way we did his predecessor.
john boscardin October 18, 2011 at 09:22 PM
The School controls the old Davisville Elementary. Thornton was asked a similar question a year or so ago and stated the same as Auger did but added that the TC has not authority over it unless they give it to the town. It makes no sense to maintain it in its current partial use. In the current economy, it could take years to sell it. Auger is conducting a meeting at Davisville El this Thursday( at 6:30 I think) to discuss its possible uses.
NKGOP Watch October 19, 2011 at 04:28 AM
"trudy" is obviously a whack job. dr auger is a great superintendent. he had nothing to do with creating the economic/pension/budget crisis.
NKGOP Watch October 19, 2011 at 04:30 AM
Make it a homeless shelter for those taxpayers WHO CAN NO LONGER AFFORD $100,000 PAY FOR SCHOOL TEACHERS
NKMom October 19, 2011 at 01:59 PM
Let's be honest, teachers do not make $100,000 - while there may be exceptions, school teachers, even college professors, do not make 6 figures. Teachers on the whole work incredibly hard for comparatively low wages - they work nights and weekends and during the summer...I know, I've lived with teachers my whole life. They are dedicated to giving our kids a better education and to improving the community in which we live. None of us would be where we are today without teachers. Though there are exceptions, I would really hope that we could move the discussion beyond teacher bashing. When you break it down, teachers and schools do more with less every day. Let's elevate the discussion to solutions and find more revenue streams to build up NK's economy, not cut down a valuable resource for our community.
john boscardin October 19, 2011 at 04:33 PM
NKGOP Watch, Auger a GREAT Superintendent? He has been on the job for what, three months? He has done nothing to earn the superlative "great". Give him time to earn the accolades.
Govstench October 19, 2011 at 09:28 PM
71 cents of every tax dollar goes toward education. 82 cents of the education budget goes towards the teachers. Those are hard numbers! This town faces a serious shortfall when the pension funding is finalized. Embury is right about that gorilla - he is big and angry. The town can only increase the budget by 4% which will send the tax bills still higher. NK is presently the 6th highest in property taxes in the state! Even that won't be enough and the cuts will have to come on the municipal side - layoffs and perhaps termination of services. Embury may also want to look at eliminating the street lights - $100/light/month. I am sure the town is paying for some of the state roads, like 1A, 102, etc. These are lean times and people have their back against the wall. Governor Gump calls for "shared sacrafice" - that goes with town services as well.
Govstench October 19, 2011 at 09:32 PM
If the school had to make cuts, it would have to be non-core value courses. Sports would be the first to go. Perhaps extra-cirrcular activities would be next, but anything that would cut down the expenditure on the budget is all fair game. Obviously, the next contract would have more cuts to the programs. Again, lean times call for action and parents need to understand and get involved. The candy store days are over.
COL October 20, 2011 at 08:06 PM
This is going to radically transform what our schools like look and what our community looks like,” said Auger. And yet we seem to get the standard approach of reducing extra curricular activities, tweaking/reducing non "core" academic programs, or bus service (where was that consideration when the school realignment/master planning was being done?). In the short term, how about Looking at the areas NK appears by UCOA to be spending well above state or suburban benchmarks - Electricity School supplies (why did the S/C let the last Supt get away without explaining why the significant need for more $ in this area), Wireless Communication/Internet connectivity Shipping/postage Telephone Conferences/workshops Legal Services Rubbish Disposal Services Rental of Equipment/Vehicles Property & Liability Insurance I'm sure for some of these areas there are explanations, but I hope the Supt and S/C look into them for efficiencies. Look at partnering to outsource administrative areas. RI Principal/Adm to teacher ratio according to the NEA is 13:1. NH is 20:1.MA is 24:1. Where do we have areas like curriculum development and assessment that several schools can pool to perform? Tuition to other schools. Mr. Mudge is right in raising the issue for discussion and having our state reps seek an exemption. Given NKSD performance, there should be targeted exceptions based on compelling reasons to send a NK student to a charter school, not an open lottery
Govstench October 21, 2011 at 11:30 AM
All the issues that you raise are pennies compared to the massive dollars that have to be cut. When you kick a can down the road as often as this legislature has done, a General Treasurer that has lied to us for eight years about the pension problem, the issue will simply not go away. Again, this town spends 71% of the budget towards education. There are areas for cuts on both sides - painful cuts, but they need to be done if this town as well as the other municipalities in RI are to remain solvent. The problem is that big! If blame needs to be made, send it to the elected legislators who have been warming those chairs for the past ten years. Where have they been?
Govstench October 21, 2011 at 11:39 AM
Dave is right, the school committee must transfer control of any vacant school building back to the town if they want to save money. The committee is charged to maintain any building under their control. The committee sat on their hands with the Wickford El building for over five years spending $50K-$75K per year on maintenance. I am sure they do not want to do the same with Davisville. Turn it back to the town and let them figure out whether to peddle it or raise it.
seed and soil October 21, 2011 at 12:11 PM
taking a very much larger view of this.... and so many other municipal fiscal issues, what strikes me is the connectedness of the issue of wealth disparity....(aka 1% of the population holds 35% of the total wealth....20% of the population holds 85% of the total US wealth)....to proper tax structure. Fix the taxing structure in our country so that the top 20% holding the 85% of our country's total wealth accountable to pay their/our equitable share and my guess would be that these unfunded liabilities would be far less of a burden then they now appear.
Govstench October 21, 2011 at 12:41 PM
One other point on the budget mess; East Providence just got handed another bond rate downgrade from Moodys. Going from A1 to Baa1 puts them into shaky ground for "investment quality grade bond." The interest costs will shoot up. EP is trying to close a $6 Million dollar debt hole and their financing plan was rejected by the state auditor. North Kingstown could easily fall into this situation by one mis-step!
Dave October 21, 2011 at 12:51 PM
I think a lot of the rhetoric is misleading. The United States has a "highly progressive" tax structure already, which translates essentially to redistribution of wealth. http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/incometaxandtheirs/a/whopaysmost.htm Please read the actual stats. The top 50% pay virtually ALL the income taxes in the US. Yes we need to close some corporate loopholes and make sure the SUPER wealthy are paying their share, but this notion that we need to tax the top 20% more is just moving towards total socialism. They are already paying most of the income taxes.
COL October 21, 2011 at 03:24 PM
You are right in the biggest component of municipal spending is education and the largest share is personnel costs. But before we default to cutting the "usual suspects", the other areas should be looked in detail. While those spending areas are not going to solve the gap created by the pension issue, they perhaps can produce real savings instead of simply asking for an additional $500,000 from the voters (and how much did that cost?). But back to your point, when labor costs become an issue, it's time to think beyond the degree compensation has become excessive or unaffordable in certain areas. That will have to be addressed in the short-run or we'll all end up like Central Falls.
COL October 21, 2011 at 04:11 PM
What I hope to hear from Dr. Auger (and others) when he says “This is going to radically transform what our schools like look,” are radical and transformative thoughts. Is the K-12 format obsolete? While I applaud the common curriculum, shouldn't edcuation be about learning to read, write, and think critically? If you can do those, you can pretty much pick up a subject area. Content areas (math, social studies, etc) are a means to learn skills, not the end -- Is it more important to think critically about geography or memorize places on a map (which in the future my mobile app will tell me anyway)? How can we involve the community in more experential learning? In a world where the SAT is more optional, AP risks becoming irrelevant with its focus on content over critical skills development, and the digital portfolio will become increasingly the college resume of students, how does that change what we assess as effective outcomes and practices of education? If my kid can collaborate with friends in a game on XBOX and I can talk with peers on Skype, how can our teachers do the same with their students? How can you integrate game and simulation-based learning, which means education takes place more than just from 8 to 2:30 and changes the skills required of teachers. Why can't professional development in a mobile age become more self-paced and on-demand for teachesr and administrators so we don't have to devote whole days to it?
Govstench October 22, 2011 at 01:38 PM
After viewing the soap opera "North Kingstown School Committee" meeting, it appears there is a lot of posturing going on and not much on agreement. If I heard correctly, there is a $4 Million dollar budget hole to be filled next year? That number has grown quite large and is approaching the debt load for the EP school system. There will need to be some serious cuts made and programs will have to be curtailed. Now is the time to bite the bullet and do it. More delay will only make the hole deeper.
Richard October 23, 2011 at 01:13 AM
Many of the comments above carry water. However, the fact remains that there are too many unfunded mandates from the state which force towns and cities to spend their financial resources foolishly. The current pension reform bill is based upon unrealistic rates of return. Undoubtedly there will be legal challenges, regardless of the legislative action taken. The people of RI and Nk must WAKE-UP and DEMAND serious action to correct the ills that cripple our state, but they will not! It may very well be time for the legal challenges to be called (like a game of poker)and the game will be to go all in. That means statewide bankruptcy! Flanders is now a noun and it is time for the whole state to recognize that the problems here are virtually insurmountable. The disingenuousness of the unions as well as the powers who are supposedly trying to correct the problems is dispicable! STOP LYING TO THE PEOPLE! The day of reckoning is here NOW! The taxpaying goose is DEAD! The only problem seems to be whether or not, the cadaver knows it.
NKGOP Watch October 23, 2011 at 03:50 AM
They CAN raise taxes. Property tax to the max, and even get overrides... the state and towns can raise fees for EVERYTHING like trash, beaches, you name it. They CAN hike gas taxes, monkey with the sales tax, and 100 other things we havent thought of. ANYTHING to pay off the unions. Look at it this way, REPUBLICAN Bob Watson THIS WEEK said on WPRO that the existing retirees should not lose one dime of their benefits! Governor Goofee couldn't have said it better himself! WE ARE DOOMED and I probably will leave RI in another couple years, coming home only to visit family and friends. Sad.
Richard October 23, 2011 at 12:02 PM
Dave I tend to agree with everything you have stated. However, I would go a little further. When we have such a large % of people not paying anything into the system, it fosters a sense of entitlement without any skin in the game. I am not trying to be mean here. I certainly understand the necessity of helping those in need. One does not appreciate the cost if one has no yardstick to measure that cost. I know a young man who recently started his first real job. When I asked him how it was going he was happy for the jingle in his pocket each week, but really not happy about what was taken from his paycheck. Bingo, reality, what a concept! Now the question is; will he grin and bear it, as collective RI usually does or will he become an engaged thinking citizen. The day of reckoning is here for this state. There is no avoiding the draconian course we have been walking for too many years. Even in the face of cold hard numbers the "fix" for the system will not be enough because it is based upon false assumptions. The slate must be wiped clean. RI needs a Flanders fix as draconian as that sounds. Any attempt to repair the problems will be met with furious opposition, all to the detriment of the collective good of the public. Therefore, like Central Falls, it is better to implement the needed fix now. RI is like a man sentenced to death waiting for all the appeals to be exhausted, sooner or later the lights will dim.
RI Jack October 23, 2011 at 08:14 PM
http://www.cnbc.com/id/45006325
Govstench October 25, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Here is something else to think about. In addition to the 48% unfunded liability the town is facing, the municipalities across the state face a 2.1 Billion dollar unfunded pension liability. Now add the 3.5 Billion dollar unfunded medical liability. No one is talking about that one. Where does North Kingstown sit on that item? The public unions, through their elected agents, have made contracts with the taxpayers that are not sustainable. They have obligated the taxpayers to unrealistic liabilities. The proof of that is the continued downward spiral of the bond ratings of the municipalities. One key component in that ratings assessment is the ability of the taxpayer to pay that obligation. We are rapidly reaching the break point. We have a noncompetitive tax and cost structure that is holding the municipalities and this state back. It will never attract new business and will have all to do to hold onto what they have left. For the amount of spending cuts and tax roll backs required, perhaps this town along with many others have already gone over the cliff. Perhaps serious consideration should be given to start converting over to county government. Government must follow the proven practices of private industry - to stay competitive and provide services, you simply must slim down and cut the duplicity. There is still much wasteful spending in municipal government, both schools and municipal services.

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