School Board President: Elorza budget is ‘inadequate, insufficient’ for kids

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of the Providence School Board continued his crusade against the mayor’s proposed school budget Tuesday, telling members of the City Council it is “inadequate, insufficient and does not meet the critical needs of our students.”

Keith Oliveira, who was reappointed to the board by Mayor Jorge Elorza earlier this year, also warned that the city’s plan to level fund the school district for a sixth consecutive year is “harmful to kids” during a three-hour meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.

“We budget based on what we think we can afford, not based on the needs of kids,” Oliveira told the committee. He voted against the budget when it appeared in front the School Board.

Oliveira’s comments came after the Finance Committee peppered school officials with questions about various aspects of the education budget, including busing, union contracts and the value of two new high schools set to open in the fall.

The school department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $353.5 million, which includes an additional $7.3 million through the state’s education funding formula, but keeps the city’s annual contribution at $124.9 million for the sixth straight year. Separately, the city is projecting a 9% cut in federal aid for the new year.

But while the 2010 creation of the statewide education funding formula has steered more state aid to Providence, school officials and board members say the district’s annual fixed costs – salaries, benefits, utilities – are growing even faster than the new funding. At the same time, per-pupil expenditures in the district have fallen from $16,916 in the 2009-10 fiscal year to $16,736 for the current year, according to the school department.

Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi, who is resigning at the end of the school year, told the committee the city is still considering privatizing its school bus monitors, who are members of Local 1033 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. She said the city has awarded a new school busing contract to First Student Inc., the same company that it has used for decades. That contract has not yet been approved by the Board of Contract and Supply.

Lusi also confirmed that the city has not budgeted the $680,000 needed to provide bus passes to all high school students who live at least two miles from school. The city currently gives passes to anyone who lives 2.5 miles from school, but the school board said last year it wanted to reduce the distance.

On union contracts, Lusi told the committee the city is beginning negotiations with Local 1033 and Local 1339, the union that represents school clerical workers. Both unions have contracts that expire later this year. An audit released this week by the Elorza administration showed Providence has a disproportionate number of support and clerical staff compared to other New England school districts. The proposed budget does not include raises for either union.

After going to mediation, the city has reached a tentative deal with the Providence Teachers Union, although the pact is still pending approval from both the union and the City Council. The three-year deal calls for raises totaling at least 4.2% by the end of the 2017 school year, but it allows for the possibility of more pay increases if other municipal unions are given larger raises over the next two years.

Councilman John Igliozzi, who chairs the Finance Committee, also questioned how the city plans to pay for two small high schools it plans to open in September. The schools will actually be housed inside Mount Pleasant High School and Hope High School, and have received a $3-million grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“I get it. These are all nice programs, but I want to know how to pay for it,” Igliozzi said. He expressed disappointment with Lusi for not providing a business plan for the district over the next five years.

Igliozzi said he intends to bring school officials back to the committee at least one more time before the budget is approved.

Then came Oliveira, who sought to add context to the spending conversation.

He reminded the committee that the proposed budget forces the school district to cut 10 special education inclusion teachers assistants, remove eight teachers, and hold off on investing in new technology and hiring more social workers.

“These are things that forward-thinking districts are investing in,” Oliveira said.

Ultimately, the school budget is decided by the mayor and the council, not the mayoral-appointed school board. The same goes with union contracts, meaning the school board has little say over how funds are spent across the district.

Oliveira said the district has seen graduation rates increase and dropout levels fall in recent years, but he warned that council that he considers level-funding the school system to be a cut because of rising operational costs.

“We’ve been absorbing cuts for six years and those cuts are on the backs of kids,” he said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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