Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Open Letter

Portsmouth voters will be asked in two short weeks to chart the course of Portsmouth’s educational future. Save Our Schools reminds all voters of the October 5th referendum and their ability to request an emergency ballot by October 4th. As the proponent for adding $765,301 to the Town Council approved budget, I encourage every voter to become familiar with the facts so that they can make an informed decision. I believe then you will agree that the $765,301 or an increase over last year of just 1.5% is both conservative and necessary.

What sacrifices have been made? The Portsmouth School Department has made deep cuts to this year’s budget: closing the Elmhurst School, eliminating 12.6 full-time positions, cutting bus routes, minimizing supplies, and eliminating select programs. This is nothing new for Portsmouth as we have been cutting for the better part of the past decade. While Portsmouth is in the bottom fifth in per-pupil spending in the State, we deliver in the top fifth in educational performance year after year. Portsmouth Schools have made sacrifices at all levels, and we can’t cut further.

Why is this increase needed? When the School Committee builds its budget it has two principal sources of revenue: state funds and town funds. The State of Rhode Island has cut back aid significantly this year to both the town and school. The only source to replace state funds is town funds or municipal taxes. Municipal taxes, however, are restricted by a property tax levy cap enacted in 2006; and, the levy can grow only as a percentage of the past year’s base. So budgets that form that base are critical to maintain. A structural deficit in the base will never be corrected. Unfortunately it only gets worse for Portsmouth Schools, under the new State Education Aid formula Portsmouth will lose $207,000 per year for the next ten years or $2,070,000. Faced with those additional cuts it is critical these referendum dollars be approved, the alternative is a true financial crisis.

Does the School District have cash reserves? Yes, in fact, the School Administration has done an excellent job managing expenses. The School Department expects to end the year with a surplus of $200,000 to $400,000. $200,000 of this will be earmarked for next year’s budget (2012), just as $200,000 of the prior year’s surplus was budgeted for this year. The balance of these funds fortunately can go to lessen the impact of the Education Aid cuts over the next three years, as was presented in the School District’s five-year forecast. The Medicaid reimbursement account currently has $428,000 of the $500,000 the District has budgeted, or presently a $72,000 deficit. The District, however, will receive additional Medicaid reimbursements and projects a positive balance at the end of this fiscal year. Again, based on the School Department’s 5-year plan, excess funds will be used to soften the incremental funding gaps in special education over the next three years and fill revenue gaps created by the reduction in Medicaid reimbursements with the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act .

These funds provide the District a very small cushion against additional changes throughout the year, such as the mid-year state aid reductions Portsmouth has experienced in the past or increased student need. These are all one-time dollars; meaning they will not be available in future years to cover similar expenses. It would be fiscally irresponsible to use one-time cash to fund our operations and create a structural deficit; doing so will only cause a $1 million deficit for the 2012 budget year.

What is the cost of $765,301? The cost to the Portsmouth tax payer is 20 cents per thousand of assessed value or $71.40 for the average home. This is slightly less than $6 per month. While I understand the economic difficulties many are experiencing in town, as well as the struggles our seniors’ face; these funds and the increase of 1.5% is the difference of our school system’s survival as we know it. I do not say that lightly, but a decade of cuts is enough.

I urge Portsmouth residents to vote for the additional funding (Option 2) on October 5th. I encourage you to watch Newport Daily News Editorial Board’s School Committee debate September 30th at 8:45 PM. I pray Portsmouth voters put ideology aside and ask themselves the importance of education for our children, our economy, our home values, and our community.

David Croston

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