$2.4 Million More in Debt for Cranston Schools

Steve Stycos of the School Committee provides this rather distressing update about the past and future deficits for the Cranston schools:

WINTER BUDGET UPDATE FROM STEVE STYCOS 12/20/09

In response to the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s rejection of its appeal for more money, and a newly estimated $2.4 million deficit for the current year, the Cranston School Committee will meet Tuesday December 22 to consider cuts to the current budget. Meanwhile, the committee waits for a decision in the East Providence school budget case.

The $2.4 million deficit comes from several areas. First, the state takeover of busing out of district special education and private school students will cost Cranston more than expected. State law requires the school department to transport children who attend Lasalle Academy, Bay View Academy, Moses Brown, Providence Country Day and other private schools. Special education students who require programs not offered by the Cranston schools, like those at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, also receive transportation financed by the school department.

Last year, in an intended cost cutting move, the legislature ordered districts to turn over out-of-district busing to the state. Savings would come, the state promised, from consolidating bus routes so that a bus could start in Johnston, then pick up students in Cranston, before heading to school. The state told the school department that the move would save the district between $500,000 and $750,000.

Splitting the difference, the school committee budgeted a $600,000 savings. After three months of experience, the school administration now estimates the program will not provide the savings and instead cost an additional $396,762. The state program is thus responsible for one million of the projected deficit. Superintendent Peter Nero is discussing the problem with the state education department and examining options.

A second problem is that the committee budgeted $487,038 in anticipated savings from negotiations with the teachers aides, technical assistant and secretaries unions. Although negotiations continue, no savings have been achieved. Budgeting the savings was one of the last moves the committee made before it finalized the current budget in June. To restore elementary guidance counselors, the committee voted to anticipate the savings. I opposed the move, doubting we would achieve the full savings, but it passed 6-1.

A third problem is outside special education tuitions, which appear are under budgeted by $730,907. This is a volatile budget area because outside tuition can cost as much as $40,000 one child, and vary year to year.

Superintendent Nero has yet to supply the school committee with his proposals to balance the budget. I suggested he look at reducing the universal breakfast program and eliminating some spring sports. Together, I estimate these changes would save less than $50,000, so we have a long ways to go.

At the last school committee meeting I raised the New England Laborers/Cranston Public School Construction Career Academy finances as another possible area for about $200,000 in savings. With strong opposition from Chairman Michael Traficante, who chairs the charter school board and works for the Laborers union, the committee rejected my proposals.

The financial relationship between the charter school (which is a partnership between the school department and the union) is complex and cloudy. According to state law, Cranston must pay half of the per pupil allotment (half equals about $5600 per student) to the charter school for every Cranston student who chooses to attend. This costs us about $750,000 a year. The other half is paid by the state.

In addition, the Laborers union and the school department pay certain costs. The school committee has never voted upon this cost sharing arrangement, but in 2007, in response to questions from then school committee member Donna Tocco-Greenaway and me, the administration produced an agreement, signed by Traficante and then Superintendent Richard Scherza. This agreement stated that the school department would pay for cafeteria services, general administration (the services of the superintendent and other central administrations staff), personnel administration and payroll processing. In addition, state law requires us to pay the charter school’s transportation and special education services. Together, these costs total about $490,000.

Meanwhile, the Laborers Union, under the agreement, pay more than $400,000 a year for technical instructors who teach about construction.

This year, for the first time, the charter school board decided to pay $193,840 of the cost the Laborers previously paid. I objected, saying if the charter school has extra money, it should be split equally with the Laborers and the school department.

Traficante responds that he and former Superintendent Catherine Ciarlo had a verbal agreement that after 5 years, the school’s technical instructor costs would be paid by the charter school. He also says the charter school saves the school department additional money. I countered that Ms. Ciarlo had no authority to make such secret agreement and it was never approved by the school committee. So far, my resolutions to correct this situation have failed to win majority support.

Nevertheless, the only way to save millions of dollars is to cut personnel costs. Currently the East Providence School Department has a case in Rhode Island Superior Court arguing that its legal requirement to have a balanced budget takes precedence over union contracts. To balance its budget, East Providence cut employee wages and benefits and then the union went to court to challenge the decision. Judge Michael Silverstein’s ruling in the case is expected this month. The Cranston School Committee will be watching.

Meanwhile the committee will meet 3 PM Wednesday CORRECTION: Tuesday at Western Hills Middle School in executive session. Public session will follow the executive session, probably around 4 PM.

3 thoughts on “$2.4 Million More in Debt for Cranston Schools

  1. You know, this is ludicrous. How can a verbal agreement like this be in any way binding? Or legal?

    What is up with this?

    What is Traf’s leverage here? Why are people afraid of him? Why does he get away with murder (of fiscal sanity) the way he does?

    There is something systemically wrong with the way the school budget is set, and how the city becomes obligated by the deals they cut.

  2. Let’s face it: someone who serves on the school committee who also serves on the board of a particular school and is also employed in another way by an organization connected with that school — it’s impossible to keep all of these conflicts from influencing funding.

  3. I won’t bore frequent readers with yet another critique of the school board’s misguided attempts to protect its own interests in the face of grave fiscal problems for the city, or another tip of the hat to Mr. Stycos for attempting to do the right thing.

    I don’t think there is any sympathy left for the school committee after the Supreme Court tore apart its arguments in the Caruolo lawsuit appeal. I wonder where Mr. Stycos stands on the legal tactics employed by the school boards lawyers, i.e., claiming that the Superior Court judge made egregious errors in her handling of the original case.

    Here’s a link to the Supreme Court decision.
    (Read it carefully in light of Mr. Stycos’s dismissal of it in 15 words.)

    Click to access 08-289.pdf

    (I notice, for instance, that Mr. Stycos does not mention this statistic: Of 59 teachers “laid off” by the school department, 43 were rehired. These layoffs were supposed to be the source of the mystical $1 million savings from moving the 6th grades to the elementary schools.)

    As long as the school committee continues to sue for its right to pay extravagant and redundant salaries to the detriment of actual education in Cranston, we will continue to see this kind of penny-ante squabbling — without any real progress.

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