The Cranston School Committee began discussing Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten’s budget proposal last Wednesday at the first of many work sessions to come. Whether or not the $140 million proposal, asking for an increase of $6.2 million from last year, will be approved or torn apart remains to be seen.
Despite initial skepticism from committee members about proposed raises, Janice Ruggieri concedes that the rising costs are often out of the district’s control.
“When our budget increases, sometimes it’s a citywide issue,” she said. “I think it’s important to start bringing up that it’s starting to cost more to educate our students and this is one of the reasons why. Some of the reasons for our budget increases are just the way the world is changing and our district needs to change along with it.”
In particular, those changes revolve around the needs of students. Since 2005, student population has decreased by 509 students but at the same time, English Language Learners (ELL) have increased by 406 students. The number of students using free and reduced lunch services has also grown substantially in that time period.
“Everybody just always presumes there are these hidden costs in our budget. We’re not just looking for more money because we’re looking to drain the city,” said committee member Stephanie Culhane. “The impact that the changing demographic is having is huge.”
The impact is not only felt by teachers, but by the budget. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) now requires the district to have an ELL coordinator, and Cranston Schools are in need of a part-time translator, at a cost of $96,000 and $8,700, respectively.
The physical needs of students are putting additional strain on the budget. The district currently has nine nurses with full-time placements, and another 10 to cover the remaining schools, meaning their time is very much split. The superintendent’s proposal includes a request for an additional nurse to “reduce fragmentation,” according to Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services Cheryl Coogan.
Coogan says that many more students have diabetes, require EpiPens or have health issues that demand additional services. There are 234 students in Cranston that require direct and monitored services, Coogan said, an increase of 30 students from September alone.
Special education costs are a continuous challenge for Cranston. Out-of-district placements or special needs students moving into district present unexpected costs that cannot be forecasted. So far this year, the district is roughly $767,000 in the red in that line item through January.
“From one year to the next, it changes so drastically,” said Chief Financial Officer Joe Balducci.
Balducci did say that changes reported this week will positive impact that figure, bringing it down, but he could not say by how much.
Committee members expressed concern that special education costs are included in the general budget and the superintendent’s proposal does not include a reserve account, funded by the city, for costs that go over what is initially budgeted. Last year, Mayor Allan Fung cut the special education contingency fund from $650,000 to $150,000. The City Council ultimately increased that account to $370,000, but even that wouldn’t cover this year’s shortfall.
In this budget proposal, Balducci took a more conservative approach, assuming that the city would not fund a reserve account. Instead, he increased the special education budget overall by $1.4 million.
“The way it is now, we’re not specifically asking the city to fund those line items. There’s no guarantee we’ll get any money from the city,” said committee member Jeff Gale.
If the city indicates that they would be willing to fund a reserve account, Balducci said the budget would be tweaked to reflect that. For example, if the city funds the reserve at $500,000, he would take that $500,000 out of the special education budget.
In addition to the costs associated with student needs, the district is reworking curriculum in order to meet the demands. The state department of education is especially concerned with math proficiency, a priority that Lundsten shares and wants to focus on going forward.
“This is one of the biggest issues we have to address: math and how we teach it,” she said.
District math plans were due to RIDE this past Monday, and in addition to looking at and evaluating curriculum, Lundsten hopes to work with a K-12 program supervisor to improve math scores. In Cranston, 400 students did not score proficient on the math portion of the NECAP test – a requirement for graduation.
“We are under very, very strict and rigorous demands by the state to make sure that all of our students have the necessary skills in math and ELA [English language arts] especially, to be proficient,” said Assistant Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse. “I don’t tend to agree with high stakes testing ... however, I am bound by these laws and requirements by the state to make sure that our students are proficient.”
In order to meet these demands, the district could potentially drop one team at each of the middle schools. With enrollment down, Nota-Masse says that class sizes at the middle school are significantly smaller than the elementary and high school levels, meaning a reduction in teams would be possible.
“We are looking to try to reallocate our staffing in order to create programs so that all students – because all students have to pass the NECAP – have access to quality programming,” she said.
There would also be a reduction in foreign language teachers in order to staff math intervention programs. Twenty-four Cranston teachers are currently participating in a course, through a partnership with Rhode Island College, to earn elementary math specialist certificates.
The committee posed questions of the superintendent, requesting an examination of foreign language outcomes, a forecast of projected population growth and a plan for how to best reinstate programs in the future, but no cuts have yet been suggested.
Former committee member Steven Bloom, who lost his Ward 1 seat to Gale, did come to Lundsten’s defense, however, saying that the raises she proposed are not out of the question. He chastised his former colleagues for their feedback of the proposal, and said they owed her an apology.
Lundsten’s proposal includes a 2 percent raise for staff. For teachers, that amounts to approximately $1.6 million, and for both certified and non-certified administrators, another $105,840.
“Just, in general, I found the budget to be very reasonable,” Bloom said. “I think it took a lot of courage for the superintendent to present the budget that she did. It’s her responsibility to identify where the district should be investing its resources.”
Other public speakers did offer suggestions on where cuts could be made or where additional investments are necessary.
Alan Davis warned that privatization is not a cure-all and that if the district goes that route, they should phase it in gradually.
“Having worked for this city for 20 years, I’m going to caution the school board not to delegate all of that privatization all in one shot. There is no company out there that is going to have the people and the equipment to cover all of these bus routes on the first day of school,” he said.
Kerri Kelleher is hopeful that the district will find new ways to improve security and safety of Cranston schools. She is concerned that too much of the responsibility is being placed on the shoulders of already burdened secretaries. At Woodridge Elementary, where her children attend, she has seen her school secretary doing filing, photocopying, answering phones and being the first line of defense for the school – required to visually check visitors before letting them in.
“They are school nurses; they are now responsible for making a visual check of the people walking into the building; they’re answering the phone; they’re taking care of students’ needs …You are single-handedly relying on school secretaries for the security of these buildings,” she said.
The next budget work session for the Cranston School Committee has been scheduled for Monday, Feb. 11.