2016-06-23 / Around Town

Council Increases 2017 Funding to Schools

By Barry Bridges

Included in the $92 million general fund city budget that Newport Councilors adopted on Wednesday, June 22, is a four percent increase in the city’s appropriation to the School Department.

The additional funding for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, which School Superintendent Colleen Jermain has consistently championed as essential for continued progress on the district’s educational goals, had been a topic of discussion for several months as the budget process moved forward.

The four percent increase, the maximum allowed under state law, will boost the city’s appropriation to the schools by $972,490 over last year, to a total of just under $25.3 million. Other sources of revenue, such as state and federal aid, will bring the total school budget to around $38.6 million.

To support the anticipated expenditures for all city departments, the residential tax rate for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will be $10.93 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of 2.44 percent over the current rate of $10.67.

The commercial tax rate will grow to $15.16 per $1,000 of assessed value, a 2.5 percent increase from the current $14.79.

A two-and-a-half percent raise for the schools, or $607,806, had already been assumed in the budget figures and was the starting point of discussions going into the spring budget season.

Jermain has cited several reasons for a larger appropriation, including the district’s special education tuitions, the need for more teachers and paraprofessionals to accommodate growing enrollments, and contractually-obligated staff raises.

“I understand that asking for four percent is challenging for the city and its taxpayers, but we have to make a decision: Do we want a strong educational system and do we want to build a strong city so that people want to stay here? If that’s the case we need to all get together, support the schools, support the future, and support families,” she said in a workshop.

Councilor Kathryn Leonard was vocal in her doubts about going beyond two-and-a-half percent. At the first budget hearing in May, she said, “I personally feel we all have to stick to our budgets, and we are giving a two-and-a-half percent increase for the schools on top of what we have given in past years…. My opinion is that we have already given a lot, and four percent is a tough sell in this economy.”

But a larger increase also found friendly voices on the dais, most notably through Councilors Justin McLaughlin and John Florez. On several occasions, McLaughlin tied the issue to the general health of the city. “If you don’t have a good educational system, people are not going to want to live here. It’s our responsibility to work toward that end.”

Florez commented in May, “I am surprised by the lack of collective enthusiasm in supporting our schools…. All the indicators are there that our educational goals are being met… There are other items in the budget that are more frivolous. Education is the great equalizer. I am very inclined to give them what they’re asking.”

By early June, City Manager Joseph Nicholson and Finance Director Laura Sitrin presented councilors with options on how they could meet the district’s four percent request with a minimal impact on property tax rates.

At that time, Nicholson said, “We have looked at the ledgers and have determined that … if the council is so inclined to go from 2.5 to four percent, we can absorb it in a certain fashion with an increase of two cents in the residential tax rate.”

To put together the extra $364,684 at issue, the manager explained that a two-cent tax increase would bring in $124,000. The balance could be derived from an estimated increase in meals and beverage tax revenues of $100,000; a $41,000 reduction in general retiree health insurance costs; and a $100,000 reduction in the equipment replacement budget.

By the time of the final vote on Wednesday, councilors had coalesced around that plan in support of four percent.

Councilor Naomi Neville noted that residents have indicated through the citizen survey that schools should be a priority. She also reported that she has a firsthand view of the schools and likes what she sees. “I can see a difference in the quality of education that my youngest is receiving [at Pell Elementary] in the last two years. I’m pleased with the results.”

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said, "We’ve worked out a reasonable compromise, and I’m more than happy to support this.”

The vote to adopt the city budget, including the four percent increase for the schools, was unanimous at 6-0, with Leonard not in attendance.

Return to top