PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Several members of the Providence School Board are calling on the Elorza administration to increase the city’s contribution to the school department for the first time in five years, as officials scramble to close a projected budget shortfall.

School officials told the mayoral-appointed school board Monday that they’ve narrowed a $34.7-million gap in the budget that takes effect July 1 down to between $6 million and $10 million, but the cuts identified could harm students and teachers across the city, according to board member Keith Oliveira.

“How long do we balance our budget on the backs of students?” Oliveira, whose colleagues are expected to re-elect him president of the board in the coming weeks, asked during a phone interview with WPRI.com.

Oliveira and Nina Pande, who heads up the school board’s Finance Committee, said that while the city projects the overall school budget to grow by $16.8 million to $363 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year, various technology upgrades and a plan to provide more free bus passes to high school students are not expected to be part of the proposal.How schools are funded

But to understand the full extent of the school board’s gripe, you first have to understand how money flows through Providence’s school department.

Roughly half of Providence’s entire budget – which totals $678.4 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30 – is devoted to schools. Just over 60% the school budget is funded with state aid, which has increased every year since 2011. The rest comes from the city, which hasn’t upped its $124.9-million allocation since 2011. (Additionally, the school department’s federal funding dropped from $64 million to $45 million between 2010 and 2013.)

When it comes to spending, just over 75% of the school budget goes to the salaries and benefits of school employees, from the superintendent to the bus monitors. The remaining funds are divided up among service contracts, utilities, supplies and equipment. The tiny percentage that remains – usually less than 2% – is considered discretionary. |

While lawmakers’ 2010 creation of a statewide education funding formula has steered more state aid to Providence – that city expects to receive between $6 million and $7 million more each year until the 2017-18 fiscal year – school officials and board members say the district’s annual fixed costs are growing even faster than the new funding.

That’s why some board members want the city to increase its own financial support for the school district after five years of flat funding.

“The city calls it stagnant funding, but we call it a decrease because our costs are rising,” Pande told WPRI.com.

A spokesman for Mayor Jorge Elorza declined to comment Thursday on whether the administration intends to propose a boost in funding for the school department because the mayor isn’t expected to release his budget proposal until next month. (One considertion for Elorza: if he raises the city’s contribution above the current $124.9 million this year, state law prohibits the city from reducing that amount in the future.)Benefits, charter schools contribute to cost increases

Either way, it’s getting more expensive to run the Providence School Department.

The vast majority of the $16.8 million in increased expenses for the fiscal year that begins July 1 are for contractual “step” pay increases, benefits and payments to charter schools, while about $4 million is set aside for hiring 47 new educators, largely at the growing West Broadway Middle School and two new high schools.

The amount of Providence money going to public charter schools is a growing concern of both school officials and board members. Earlier this month Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi told the City Council Education Committee she expects Providence to spend about $19.5 million next year to send about 4,200 students to charters, an increase of $3.3 million.

Lusi told the committee she has long supported charter schools because she believes families deserve more choices when it comes to education, but said she is “increasingly ambivalent because of the impact of the costs.” Unlike Providence, Lusi said, charter schools aren’t required to pay for private school transportation or textbooks and typically don’t have “high-need special education students for which we pay tuition.”

“I don’t think right now we have what I would consider a fair funding formula in terms of charters versus regular public schools,” Lusi said.

Separately, Elorza has ordered a full audit of the school department as part of an effort to find cost savings in the budget. That review is being conducted by the Boston-based consulting firm Mass Insight Education and is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

In 2011, the same firm told the city its schools had “a significant imbalance in the number of support and professional staff.” The report showed that for every one member of the school district’s professional staff, there were eight employees considered support or clerical staff. Of the 10 other school districts reviewed – including Boston, Worcester, Hartford and New Haven – no school system had more than three support or clerical staff for every one professional staffer, putting Providence’s ratio more than twice as high.

At the same time, Providence teachers have been working without a new contract since September after the union overwhelmingly rejected a pact negotiated by former Mayor Angel Taveras. The city and the union are currently involved in mediation discussions, but it’s unlikely the city will see any significant savings before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro told WPRI.com she hopes the city will increase municipal funding for the school budget, but added that “our students deserve to reap the economic benefits of such an ask, not a consultant.”

“I think we are in dire straits and if the City Council can provide the district with more funds that would be terrific,” she said. “That being said, unless the money goes directly to the schools and not to fund other things, we should tread cautiously.”

All the while, the Elorza administration is facing budget challenges of its own. The mayor’s staff has been working behind the scenes to chip away at a projected shortfall of between $10.5 million and $23.1 million for his first budget. Elorza has repeatedly said he does not plan to raise taxes to balance the budget in his first year in office.

In the end, the school board doesn’t have the power to force Elorza to increase funding for schools – the City Council will eventually approve the school budget – and Rhode Island school districts don’t have the power to raise taxes to pay for their needs.

To make matters even more peculiar, Providence has one of only three school boards in the state where members are appointed by the mayor rather than elected by voters. (Central Falls and Woonsocket are the others.)

Oliveira said the board wants to focus on improving the city’s schools – and insisted that will take more money.

“We have a dual role in that because we’re appointed, we have to work with the administration and the City Council, but as a school board, our job is to provide an appropriate education for the needs of our students,” he said.Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan