Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Attempt to cut school budget fails in Newport

The article below from the Eagle Times
details some of the less-than-inspiring events during the Newport school deliberative session. Particularly telling was Superintendent Bill Mealey's sarcastic retort to resident Rick Thomas' calls for much-needed spending cuts:

"God forbid the facts get in the way of emotion".

Apparently Mr. Mealey has forgotten that he works for Mr. Thomas (as well as every other taxpayer in Newport school district).

The district seemingly considers full-day kindergarten and expansive teacher contracts more important that the financial solvency of the district or its residents.

Attempt to cut school budget fails in Newport

Aaron Aldridge
Staff Writer

NEWPORT - Tempers flared at the Newport school deliberative session Tuesday night when resident Rick Thomas listed dozens of ways the school board could reduce the proposed $16.5 million budget by at least $1 million.

"I understand the money is tight, but there is room to make cuts," said Thomas, a former school board member.

As Thomas spouted facts for more than half an hour about reduced enrollment in the district and the ever-increasing cost to educate a child, Superintendent Bill Mealey momentarily took control of the podium from Thomas in order to respond.

"God forbid the facts get in the way of emotion," Mealey said, claiming that Thomas' statements were incorrect.

The two-hour discussion over the budget began when budget advisory committee chairman Dwight LaFountain made a motion to reduce the budget by $190,000 - or $4,000 less than the default budget.

The motion eventually failed, but not until after several people voiced their opinions.

LaFountain said the advisory committee voted to not recommend the school board's budget for several reasons, including the decision to add two teaching positions for kindergarten. Five teachers are retiring but the board agreed not to replace three of them, cutting one position each at Towle Elementary, the middle school and high school. The savings was used to pay for all-day kindergarten.

"I do not agree with the choices," LaFountain said. "It does appear from what we've been told is that enrollment is declining and positions will not be filled. It was our strong recommendation to the board to bring in a warrant article for kindergarten."

Voters have twice rejected a warrant article for all-day kindergarten in recent years.

According to school board member Bob Collins, the amount in the budget to fund all-day kindergarten is $120,000.

LaFountain also said the committee felt that the special education budget is too high.

"We also feel a reduction in the special education budget would be appropriate," LaFountain said.

School board chair Kathy Sarles said that if the budget does not pass as proposed, the school district will have a financial crisis.

"The initiatives are gone," Sarles said. "The long-term goals of having kindergarten and small classes are gone. It will be crisis management."

Before the motion was made to cut the budget, Collins explained to the crowd of 60 people, made up mostly of school staff and administration and town officials, that a majority of the proposed budget increase, or 78 percent, came from previously approved articles such as debt service for the addition at Richards School and teacher and staff contracts.

The remainder of the increase was from special education and costs associated with the school administrative unit.

"One of the first things we asked as a board from our administrators was a very meager budget," Collins said. "We feel the budget presented will allow the Newport School District to grow and prosper for years to come."

If the budget passes during all-day voting March 11, the local school property tax is estimated to increase by $1.87 per $1,000 of property value to $12.90.

All other articles were moved without discussion, including:

• Creation of an unanticipated educational services fund.

• Adding $50,000 to the building renovation capital reserve fund.

• Creation of a land purchase capital reserve fund.

• $15,000 to repair the retaining walls at Towle School.

• $1 million for the building renovations capital reserve fund.

None of the other warrant articles are expected to have an impact on the property tax except Article 7 to replace the retaining walls. If passed, the estimated tax increase is 3 cents per $1,000 of property value.

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