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School Committee Killed Full-Day K, but Didn’t Have To

In its most shameful action in recent memory, the Tiverton School Committee voted Tuesday night to deprive 120 Tiverton children of full-day kindergarten, which they themselves say is critically important.  Add one more example that the Tiverton 1st government makes its decisions for the government first, not the people.

Very little of the discussion had to do with other options; the committee seemed entirely uninterested in pushing the hired employees of the school department for alternatives.  Instead, they spent the bulk of the time attacking the supporters of the 0.9% budget — me, specifically.

Disappointingly, the meeting appears to have been poorly attended.  Only a handful of people spoke (after much prompting from Chairwoman Sally Black), and only a couple of them appeared to be parents of the affected children. Perhaps part of the reason was that the topic was listed on the agenda as “discussion/possible vote – 2015/2016 budget,” without explicitly mentioning the item of most concern: full-day kindergarten.

Readers should view the video to decide for themselves whether it was a political move, but whatever their impression, they should be careful to note the budget information presented by Superintendent William Rearick.

On top of depriving those children of full-day kindergarten, the School Committee’s decision wound up costing the school department over $100,000 in state aid and grants while forcing the municipal government to pay the schools another $63,207 for which voters did not vote — all of it for no reason but a refusal to use surplus reserves for the one-time expense of full-day K’s first year.

The Bigger Problem Was Cost Estimating

The 0.9% budget reduced the increase that the school department requested by $126,341, but Rearick announced at the meeting that the department’s request was actually off by $423,244 in the first place.  That’s a difference of about 1% of the requested budget.  (Note that his slide says $423,238.  I’m using, here, the total of each item listed.)

This deficit would have been the same no matter which budget passed at the financial town referendum.

To make up the difference, Rearick and business administrator Douglas Fiore recommended the following:

  • $189,991: Postpone implementation of Full-day K until FY17 (the next year)
  • $144,852: One-time credit from the Health Insurance Premium Stabilization Account
  • $62,302: Updated teacher retirement savings
  • $56,100: Postpone/eliminate a part-time remedial math teacher position at Ft. Barton
  • $10,000: Postpone/eliminate implementation of Virtual High School
  • $8,064: Postpone/eliminate a part-time librarian assistant

This totals $471,312.  Fiore also stated that the remaining $78,273 to reach the number of their requested budget could be worked out over the course of the year somehow.  (Rearick mentioned that they expect a “small” surplus again this year, so maybe that’s where the money would come from.)

If Budget #1 Had Won

As stated above, the $423,000 deficit would have appeared no matter which budget won at the FTR.  If Budget #1 had won, however, it would have been politically impossible for the School Committee to put an end to full-day K.  That would have left the committee with a deficit of $141,923 to fill in some additional way, even after it canceled all of the other programs listed above other than kindergarten.

Even with the margin of $78,273, the committee would have had to come up with $63,650.  There would have been no way around it.

The Options with Budget #2

But Budget #1 did not win, leaving the School Committee with two options: Go forward with full-day K or kill it.

If the committee had gone forward with full-day K, its list of easy savings would have totaled $281,321, or $359,594 if we allow the same $78,273 margin.  In other words, the school department would have had to come up with the $126,341 reduction from the FTR, plus the remaining $63,650 of its new deficit, or $189,991.

It’s important to remember that full-day K comes with an additional $63,207 in direct state aid, as well as another $40,400 as a grant from the state for kindergarten start-up costs.  So, if the schools had come up with the $189,991, they would have brought in another $103,607 of state money.  Technically, the $40,400 grant could not have been used to offset operational costs, but the bottom line difference for the schools would have been just $86,384.

If it seems like the numbers just aren’t adding up, here’s the missing piece:  The school department sued the town a few years ago to make sure that the town has to make up for any difference if the schools overestimate their state aid in the budget.  Because the School Committee refused to move forward with full-day kindergarten, municipal government now has to come up with the $63,207 that was going to come from the state.

It may not matter to the School Committee whether this money comes from the state or the taxpayers of Tiverton, but it’s going to matter to all of us if the municipal government runs out of money.

Surplus Reserve Balance

As part of his presentation, Rearick ran through information about the extra money that the schools have on their books, as its reserve balance.  As we’ve previously reported, the school department began the year with $1,694,495.  Of that, $239,655 had already been approved for capital expenses (like building maintenance and other purchased objects), with another $268,670 to be spent this year for the same purpose.  Additionally, replacing a middle school furnace cost $32,843, leaving $1,153,327 in the account.

For next year, the School Committee wants to reserve $250,000 for capital expenses.  Subtracting that from the balance leaves the $903,327 in surplus reserves that came up during the budget campaign.

The new wrinkle that Rearick added on Tuesday night was the possibility of using “up to” $500,000 of the reserves for emergency repairs.  The state would reimburse 40% of that ($200,000) to the town.  That would leave $403,327 in the schools’ reserves.

Both Rearick and the committee were clear that the $500,000 is only a possibility, at this point, and that not all of it would have to be used.

The committee members also discussed their fear that going below $400,000 in reserves might present a problem if they found that some other cost had been greatly underestimated, or if something unexpected came up.  In that case, they’d have to go to the town for the money.

The Obvious Solution

Given all of the above, the obvious choice should have been to go forward with full-day kindergarten.  The following plan would have been a good approach:

  • Use $189,991 from the reserves to pay for full-day kindergarten. Doing so would have saved the town government $63,207, brought in $40,400 in grant money, and (most important) done the right thing for 120 Tiverton children.  Next year, state aid for kindergarten is going to increase to almost the full cost, so it really is a one-year expense.
  • The reserve balance would have still been $213,336. I have data going back to the 2008-2009 school year — six years — and the reserve balance was in that range for the first three of those years.  Back then, by the way, that was everything.  With capital included, the reserves would still be twice as much as they were, then.  It’s sufficient.
  • If something unexpected were to come up for which the schools would have needed the whole $403,327, then the committee could reduce the $500,000 for repairs. The town would lose the match from the state, but 40% of $189,991 is $75,996, which is only $12,789 more than the school committee is costing the municipal government by not doing full-day kindergarten.

Such a plan would be fully in line with the way the school department typically budgets, and it would put the people of Tiverton first, rather than the Tiverton government and Tiverton 1st’s revenge.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz, Vice President of the Tiverton Town Council, is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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