Schools get budget boost, but still short, says Nota

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The City Council’s amended budget for the coming fiscal year includes $111,000 more in city funds for the school department, adding to the $600,000 in the original budget proposal. The schools had asked for roughly an additional $1.3 million for their operating budget.

The budget will also give an additional $120,000 to the police department for two full-time school resource officers to rotate between the 23 schools in the city starting next school year.

Council President Michael Farina said this year’s budget process has been fairly tough because it didn’t have any tax increase and was tighter than year’s past, but it has been a “very collaborative process” in making adjustments, most notably to the school department, while not increasing the overall budget of $289.6 million.

He said that the council found the $111,000 extra for the school budget by making a “large amount of small cuts,” such as cutting out a proposed part-time associate in the Mayor’s clerk’s office, decreasing utilities costs, and using the historical collection rate to add money.

Farina said that the Council ended up having around $270,000 to play with, which they used for schools, additional help for the department of public works, and adding a custodian to the Pastore complex, since the city now operates the building.

School Superintendent Jeannine Nota said she was disappointed about receiving nearly $600,000 less than their original request, as she was hoping for enough money to hire two new social workers and increase funds for school safety as well. She said the department would hire one social worker, who will most likely be at the high schools starting next year, and use the rest of the funds for school safety.

Nota said that the school department always tries to make it work despite not being given what they request, and they are “very conscious of our spending and our budget.” They were also given roughly $700,000 in additional funds to work with last year.

However, she said that the schools need more money in their capital fund for construction and infrastructure of the schools, many of which are more than 50 years old, or they won’t be able to qualify for state funding from the department of education.

She also said that they wanted to continue expanding career and technical programs. A new criminal justice program at Cranston East is already funded, she said, but they also have a long-term plan for expanding other technical programs at the schools, such as Pathways at the middle schools and robotics at Cranston West.

“As a taxpayer in the city I get why the city council and school department should be held accountable,” she said about the school’s requests for increased funding. “We don’t want to be perceived as having out of control spending, but we have many buildings and students to take care of, we’re the second largest district in the state. It costs a lot to run our schools, and I think we do a very responsible job with it.”

School committee chairwoman Janice Ruggieri also expressed frustration over the schools’ request not being met, saying that the lack of money impacts the long-term planning of the school department the most.

One example, she said, is a five-year plan to improve school safety, which she said many City Council members have been vocal about improving, and it may need to be pushed back a few years because of a lack of funding.

She said that cuts will happen in the budget, but she wasn’t sure where those cuts would be just yet. Nota said that the department “tries to keep those cuts as far away from the students as possible,” and they may come through changing insurance or healthcare plans.

Nota also said that some costs can’t be prepared for, such as extra special education costs, which will no longer be covered by a city-funded contingency that was given $420,000 in last year’s budget, or students from other districts coming to Cranston’s schools.

Councilman Ken Hopkins had been vocal about increasing school funding, saying that as a former teacher he understands why they need it. He was worried that the lack of funds would lead to school cuts, such as extracurricular activities.

“I wish we had more money to give around, but I’m not sure how you do that without raising taxes,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins also said that some departments not getting enough funds was “the nature of the beast every year,” and said that the city provides “an awful lot of good services,” and the by cutting other budgets to accommodate certain departments important services would also be cut.

Farina agreed on this regard, saying that if the council had found the $1.3 million for the schools they would have had to cut something else that is important to the city.

In a statement, Mayor Allan Fung said that he is “pleased that the City Council adopted the proposed budget that does not raise property taxes. This is a responsible budget that will provide increased funding for school buildings, school safety, city infrastructure and services.”

About nearing the end of the budget process, Farina said it was “good to get back to normalcy and continue trying to move the city forward.”

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