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Schools, council meet to discuss shortfall in funding

An estimated 200 people, many unhappy with Mayor Allan Fung’s proposed school budget, showed up at City Council Chambers Thursday. By the time the evening came to a close they had moved to the Cranston East auditorium and members of the council were willing to consider additional school funding.

THE SIDES COME TOGETHER: School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri speaks before a packed Council. (Herald photos by Jacob Marrocco)

Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse has requested a 1.8 percent increase in funding or $1.7 million, yet the mayor’s budget recommends an increase of $700,000, the source of plenty of consternation at the meeting.

The school budget has been compounded by two outside factors: the Rhode Island Department of Education has slashed Cranston’s funding by $763,000 based on the fact that 300 fewer students are opting for free/reduced lunch. Also, President Donald Trump’s budget plan would fund its $1.4 billion to expand vouchers by gouging public education aid. That number could mean a 16 percent cut, according to the Los Angeles Times’ David Lauter back in March.

For reference, the Warwick School Committee that oversees a similar sized school district asked for $4.8 million in additional city funding, an increase of 4 percent. The Warwick Schools proposed budget is $167 million in total as compared to Cranston’s proposed budget of $154 million.

Cranston Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Ray Votto said Tuesday morning that it seems the error involving those 300 students occurred on school end and not with RIDE. This was gleaned from a meeting at RIDE involving Nota-Masse, CFO Joe Balducci and others.

“They go back in March 2016 to develop your budget in that way, then they looked back in March 2017 and saw those kids were gone,” Votto said. “We’re trying to determine how that data got to them. It could’ve been a myriad of things and I don’t want to speculate at this point. We confirmed this on Friday and we are trying to determine how.”

There were myriad public speakers on Thursday. After Cranston Teachers’ Alliance president Liz Larkin and School Committee Chairperson Janice Ruggieri urged the council to fully fund the budget, the fire department informed Council President Michael Farina that the overflow of attendees had violated the fire code.

There was a 35-minute recess declared to move the remainder of the meeting across the way to Cranston East’s auditorium. Students worked frantically to set up microphones and tables for the council and the public speakers.

Shortly past 8 p.m., it got rolling again.

School Committee representative Stephanie Culhane said that she would be fine with a tax increase if it meant the money was going to improving the school system. The mayor’s proposed budget already has a 49-cent-per-$1,000 hike.

“We have never, in my nine years on the school committee, got the full funding that we have asked for,” Culhane said. “I was asked [last year] by someone who is not on this stage anymore [in the Council] if I would support a tax increase to provide more money for my budget. That was flagrant disrespect, because he would not have asked that of any other city department head. I said I couldn’t answer that.

“But this year, I’m going to say ‘Yeah.’ I absolutely would support an increase in taxes if you had to because that is an investment in these students and it’s an investment in this city.”

Culhane’s sentiments were echoed by several speakers. Joanne Spaziano and Robert Santurri, Jr., both expressed support of a slight increase.

“People don’t mind a small tax increase if it means it’s going to good schools,” Spaziano said. “I’m telling you as a Cranston resident, before I was a Cranston employee, I moved here because of the school system. Our home has tripled in value. I am very, very proud of the education that my three children received in the Cranston school system. We don’t mind paying a little bit more in taxes because we know it will grow the value of our home.”

Santurri, who was educated by the Cranston school system, said that the city could reap the benefits of fully funding the school department now rather than waiting to in the future.

“I’d rather have a tax increase now,” Santurri said. “The reality of the situation is the schools are what they are and they need a certain amount of money. We have to fund them now.”

Jason Smith, the father of three children in the system, said it would leave parents with two options should the money not be found in the budget and schools begin to decline.

“I could move to a town or city with a better system or send them to a private school,” Smith said. “I ask you as an accountant, try to find a way to find this money.”

After all the signed-up public speakers had their turn at the microphone, there was a brief recess and more than half the people left.

Finance committee chairman Michael Favicchio asked CFO Joe Balducci about health care and busing.

Favicchio asked for an explanation of the Pathways schools tuition. Pathways are schools that offer programs similar to ones in Cranston, but because students have a choice the district has to pay for them to attend out-of-district schools even though the same programs are provided.

"The district has been hit hard by student choice,” Nota-Masse said. “We are facing 'students should go where they want to go' philosophy. I shouldn't have to pay for a student to go to a program that we offer, and I can't prevent that.”

Balducci assured Favicchio that there were no budgeted cuts for sports or music, as there is full funding for those programs.

Nota-Masse made a point of clarifying that she never said they were closing schools or cutting programs at the school committee meeting the prior Monday.

Based on numbers provided by the district, RIDE announced it would cut funding to CPS for school year 2017-18 by more than $750,000, or the absence of 300 students receiving free/reduced lunch.

Favicchio announced he will be introducing a resolution to the state to reinstate the lost $750,000-plus to the district.

Finance Director for the City Bob Strom was bothered by the state's cuts.

"It irks me that the state cuts the city in many areas. They keep cutting, but they keep mandating," he said.

Nota-Masse said they are working with RIDE to figure out where those 300 students went. The Council was supportive overall at the time of the hearing.

“We don't have a reconciliation of their data with ours, to explain this,” she said. “I believe the mistake is on their part, we have a second chance at more money. RIDE has been unclear on where the numbers came from.”

Favicchio supported the school committee budget.

"There is not a lot of fluff in the budget,” he said. “I know how hard it is to find the funding. You shouldn't have to be responsible for the loss of $750,000. We need to look at wants versus needs in the budget.”

Ward 5 representative Chris Paplauskas also offered his support to the school department.

"Your comments are not falling on deaf ears, we will do what we can to help," he reassured.

Citywide councilman Ken Hopkins, a retired teacher, expressed his support as well.

"We're on your side, we're with you,” he said. “We will support you like our kids were supported years ago. I'm appalled by the state. We as a community must unite and go to the state. You've got one guy in your corner, we will make sure the budget gap is closed.”

Ward 3 representative Paul Archetto offered a solution to help close the gap, based on the upcoming tax increase.

"It is up to the council to do damage control. We are going to try to help,” Archetto said. “What if instead of the 49 cents on $1,000 tax increase, we go to 59 cents on the thousand. That gets $500,000 and I am sure we can find the other $250,000. But, we do need to pressure our state reps.”

Citywide John Lanni, Jr., supported both the schools and the mayor.

"You are short $765,000 because of the State of Rhode Island,” Lanni said. “Not because of the Mayor, not because of the City Council. Pressure has to go on to our state reps. I promise I'll do whatever I can to help you.”

Council President Farina, who has two children in the district, expressed support as well.

“I am a graduate of Cranston schools,” Farina added. “I am fully invested in the district.

The City Council was expected to consider the amendments Wednesday night followed by adoption of the budget Monday according to the posted calendar.

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