- Jennifer Lima
MayDay for the School Budget is April 25
Budgeting is hard. It’s not a process most people enjoy. If you’ve ever tried to make a household budget you know that not everyone in your own family agrees on where money should be spent. Now imagine being responsible for creating a budget for an entire town. The Town Council has to do just that. As stated in their FY2023 budget message, the past two years have provided unprecedented challenges. This year’s budget is particularly challenging due to rising inflation coupled with a state mandated re-evaluation for homeowners. The burden that this places on residents is real and cannot be overlooked.
The amount of the school budget, given that it’s the largest single expenditure for the town, deserves to be scrutinized. The School Committee is proposing a budget for FY2023 of approximately $74 million dollars. Of this, approximately $58 million comes from the Town. This amount represents a 3.86% increase in town funding over FY2022. This increase is to keep the school department services essentially the same as the current conditions.**
Despite the work the school district has done in finding ways to keep this request low, the realities of the current state of the economy present increasing cost commitments. Staying neutral in addressing budgetary needs for the NKSD is a 4% plus proposition.
North Kingstown has an excellent school department. Our student achievement statistics are among the best in the state. NKSD is currently ranked among the top K-12 districts in testing in ELA, Math and science (despite having higher free and reduced lunch percentages). We are about average in per-pupil spending and our staff all receive relatively average compensation compared to other RI districts.
I want to be clear that I hear the concerns of our residents about what any increase to any budget does to their pocketbook. My husband and I have owned a house in this town since 2001 and like you, we have seen our property taxes rise year after year. We have four children, two of whom will be in college next year. Up until the past few years, we needed to hold down multiple jobs in order to just get by. I did not approve the requested school budget lightly.
Nor did I make the motion to add the staff to support our students' mental health needs lightly. We have heard over and over again that our children's mental health has been affected by the pandemic. Even pre-covid, we were not staffed adequately to provide the services needed. The additional funds provide for a social worker at the elementary school level, a district wide special education teacher for autism support, and a school psychologist to be split between the high school and middle schools.
I know that not everyone supports these staff additions. There was disagreement within our own committee on this issue. The concern about being able to fund these positions in later years is valid. There are several factors down the road that could affect future budgets for future school committees. But the students in our school are in need of mental health support NOW.
We all know someone whose child has struggled over the past two years. And when I say struggle, I’m not talking about the garden variety adolescent growing pains. I’m talking about children who lost family members, children who have attempted suicide, children whose anxiety and depression prevents them from making it through the school day without disruptions. The list goes on and on.
We have students within our schools who need inpatient treatment but can’t get it because there are no beds available in the state, and who have to wait months just to get an intake appointment with a psychiatrist. These things can have a lifelong impact. And there is a cost to that. To the student, to the families, and to the town. We can pay now or pay later. Adding these positions shows that we recognize that mental health is a priority. Investing in our children’s mental health will reap long term benefits.
I’ve heard people ask why we don’t use ESSER funds [pandemic stimulus] or some of our surplus to plug holes in the budget. ESSER funds can not be used as part of the budget, or on existing programs. They have to be used for previously unprovided programs. As to the surplus, of that approximately $6 million of it must be held for emergencies, some is allocated to future fiscal years, and some is allocated to anticipated future repairs. In addition, fund balances are not supposed to be used for recurring expenses as it will create a structural deficit moving forward. The town itself also has a surplus fund.
A well funded school system benefits the town, even if you don’t have children in the district. Collectively as a community, we do better when our schools are better. We need to ensure appropriate funding in the school budget in order to maintain the caliber of education that NK is known for. No one wants to increase taxes. But the long term effect of stripping away the things that make our district as great as it is will be much more harmful in the long run.
The final hearing on the budget will take place on April 23rd. The current proposal from the Town Council is less than what the School Committee is asking for, and is also less than the amount pre-staff addition. It’s important that the Town Council hears from as many people as possible. I urge you to contact them with your thoughts - and show up at the meeting and share them - whatever they may be.
-- Jennifer Lima, NK School Committee Member
**This includes an additional increase of approximately 300k (0.52%) in order to support hiring additional mental health and special education staff for the district.