2015-04-16 / Front Page

Triplett Decision Delayed

By James Merolla

On Tuesday, April 14, the Newport School Committee convened at 7 p.m. At 10:18 p.m., they came to their one salient decision of the evening – to delay their one salient decision of the evening.

The committee voted 5-2 to wait until May 12 to decide whether to give Triplett Elementary School back to the city of Newport. If the school is relinquished, the committee could reclaim about $240,000 from the current capital improvements allocated for Triplett. The money was placed in that budget to fix the roof and effect other repairs. If the school department turns Triplett over to the city, they will not have to spend that money for the proposed pre-K center.

Committee member Robert J. Leary argued that he needed the one-month delay to gather as one-month delay to gather as much information as possible before deciding to hand over the building.

The non-decision came on the heels of two earlier deficit announcements. First, Finance Director Joan Tracey projected $47,000 would be added to the school’s current fiscal deficit, citing last month’s substitute teaching payroll, overtime and some health insurance costs.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain and Tracey then confirmed to the committee that the school’s current fiscal deficit, estimated at about $1.15 million in February, will, in fact, exceed $1.42 million by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Tracey reminded the committee that payroll, personnel, and related health insurance benefits comprise some $29 million of the school budget, while other expenses outside of payroll – materials, upkeep, plowing, paper, supplies, etc., comprise about $6 million of the budget.

She said that principals in each school are constantly being reminded they must reduce spending in their buildings over the last 10 weeks of the calendar year. Jermain said that principals first went into their supply budgets and cut them by 10 percent. “The principals are being very cooperative, but I will say this is very challenging for them. They have never done this before,” Jermain told the committee.

During the Triplett divestment discussion, Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines said, “I was just a little bit afraid of letting go of the one property we have that [is to our advantage]. Do we need to do this right now or can we wait until we have more information?”

Committee Vice Chair David Hanos, who, along with committee member Rebecca Bolan, voted against delaying the Triplett decision, countered. He said, “It’s time to get going on the Triplett School, one way or the other. We don’t need to spend the time on a feasibility study. My gut tells me it’s time to make a move on this.”

Leary argued for the one-month postponement because he wants specific estimates of what it would cost to keep Triplett open. Leary pointed out city plans to use the Triplett property for a staging area during the upcoming Broadway reconstruction project and perhaps the city could parlay that agreement to benefit the school department financially.

“To get more information would be better for us,” said Leary. “I don’t think a month is going to change that.”

“I trust that we will be able to work something out,” said Jermain, who promised an answer on how the schools will eliminate their large deficit in less than two weeks after ongoing meetings with City Manager Joseph Nicholson. “We’re having very good discussions [with the city] and we met today. In a week or so, we will be more concrete,” she added.

However, Jermain said, she has begun the annual rite of purging teachers and staff as a prerequisite to forming the proposed 2016 school budget. Superintendents must match staff with their prospective budgets to cover personnel costs; they often hand out pink slips to make this work, then, just as often, rescind those lay-off notices when a higher proposed payroll budget is formally approved by the accompanying municipality.

“I don’t want to unnecessarily upset staff, if we don’t have to upset staff. That is why we are going very slowly, very methodically,” with the process of potential layoffs to cover the district, said Jermain.

“I can’t imagine how difficult this is,” said Bolan of the deficit, proposed cuts and reductions.

“Everything now is just speculation,” added Jermain. “We are coming up with some very creative and collaborative ways to address financing.”

With wounds of the $1.42 million deficit still open in 2015, committee member David Carlin III wanted some sort of assurances that this will not happen again in 2016.

“I am quite certain I would not be able to support a budget that did not have in place the savings at the time we would be adopting the [next] budget,” said Carlin, who plans to ask the administration, colleagues and the city “to bring forward a budget that does not include savings during the fiscal year, but balances the budget at the beginning.”

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