The saga of the school department’s financial woes continued this week as the North Kingstown Town Council moved to slash the current year’s spending plan for schools by $266,624.
Last month, school officials discovered that the North Kingstown School Department’s revenues would come up short, leaving the department with a deficit of $712,000. (According to Superintendent Phil Auger, that figure could jump to as much as $1.2 million pending the outcome of union contract negotiations with school employees — a contract that now goes into arbitration.)
Town Manager Michael Embury said the quarter-million-dollar cut was computed by the monthly budget report the school department provided the town. The report shows a $705,000 decrease in projected revenue and that the North Kingstown School Committee voted to use $438,876 from its fund balance to reduce the shortfall, leaving $266,624.
According to Embury, he cut the school department’s spending by that amount to remain in compliance with state law.
“As the numbers come out, you have to do this or you aren’t compliant,” said Embury.
The matter is now in court after the town sued the school department in mid-December, seeking to halt school spending amidst the projections of revenue shortfalls. Superior Court Judge Brian Stern opted not to rule on whether the town has the legal right to halt spending and instead “encouraged” both sides to work together to find a resolution. For Auger, this collaboration has been lacking since an initial meeting in December with Embury, Council President Liz Dolan and School Committee Chairwoman Kimberly Page.
“Since that time, I have had very little contact with Mike Embury other than problems with processing everyday, regular checks because of differences in opinion,” said Auger. The school department, however, has been prohibited from making any expenditures out of the ordinary and must seek the authorization of the town until the budget shortfall is resolved.
“I don’t think what they did is good for our school district or good for our town and taxpayers,” said Auger.
Both sides are still awaiting the findings of an audit by independent auditor Nadeau Wadovick LLP of Warwick to analyze the school department's finances and find a remedy to the estimated $1.2-million deficit the schools are facing. In addition, the school department has yet to hear from the state’s auditor general. In late December, the school department submitted two plans to remedy the possible shortfalls. In one plan the town would fork over $712,000 to offset the shortfall and in another the school could use the remainder of its surplus (approximately $500,000) to fill the gap, thus leaving a $212,000 shortfall.
As for the suit currently in Superior Court, the matter is due to Judge Stern on Feb. 6.
“I feel like it’s just intimidation and I feel like it will not be settled by the town manager and myself,” said Auger. “It will be handled by lawyers.”