School Committee approves $57.9M budget

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The Johnston School Committee unanimously approved the district’s $57.9 million budget plan for the coming fiscal year during an abbreviated virtual meeting Tuesday night.

The vote came after a nearly two-hour Zoom budget workshop on May 7, during which Superintendent of Schools Bernard DiLullo ran through each figure and opened the floor to questions. There was much less discussion Tuesday night, save for a few clarifying questions from District 3 representative David Santilli.

The superintendent lauded business manager Lesli-Ann Powell for her work on the final document. Johnston High School Principal Dennis Morrell also noted in the message section that “it was a pleasure” working with Powell and that she is “very helpful and knowledgeable.”

The $57.9 million overall figure is an increase of $698,933 from last year, which DiLullo told the Sun Rise accounts for a $1.4 million boost in state aid that the district is projected to receive. He said that bump is likely because of rising English language learner, or ELL, and special education populations.

He repeated during the workshop and in a phone interview that the numbers are contingent upon state aid figures remaining stable. If there are fluctuations due to the pandemic, the administration will have to revisit the budget plan.

“We would have to go back and look at certain programs and what we could eliminate,” DiLullo said of a scenario where the district receives less state aid. “Our goal has always been to give the kids what they need. We don’t want to cut music programs, we don’t want to cut sports programs, we certainly don’t want to cut academic programs.”

The two most eye-catching figures in the new budget include drastic changes in special education and out-of-district tuition. The former sees the special education allotment going from about $4.5 million to $3.7 million, a cut of nearly $800,000.

DiLullo said those cuts are mainly from contract services, as the district is moving in-house for certified behavior specialists rather than continuing its current agreement. That resulted in a substantial cut.

Out-of-district tuition has been a sticking point in Johnston for a while, with the School Committee – during its most recent in-person meeting – urging state Reps. Mario Mendez and Deborah Fellela to help provide some legislative relief.

The district seeks an increase of more than $900,000 to that portion of the budget for the coming year, going from $1.8 million to $2.7 million. DiLullo said students going to Ponaganset High School for vocational education has factored into that figure.

“I think one of the major issues with career and technical centers – and, as I said before, it is a wonderful thing that they can pursue other options regarding vocational training – however, the funding for it has to be different,” DiLullo said. “It needs to considered regarding these kids leaving the district and giving the district additional funding, especially if the district has the programs within the district.”

DiLullo told Santilli during the Tuesday meeting that the incoming freshmen class of 300 students will be reduced by 80, with those kids going elsewhere for vocational services.

He noted that three high school teachers had their positions eliminated in the budget.

“This has been a key issue for many superintendents,” DiLullo said. “It’s happening in a lot of districts. I’ve seen it happening in districts that have career and tech centers like Warwick. That is something that shouldn’t occur because they have programs. It’s a problem, [one] that we’ve expressed to our Superintendents Association … There was some movement last year on addressing this issue in the legislature but with COVID there’s not a lot of action.”

Vice Chair Joseph Rotella joked with DiLullo about whether he could just say “no” to sending kids elsewhere for vocational education, but he said that’s not possible.

“I would love to just say no, but then you’ll have to find a new superintendent,” DiLullo said.

Elsewhere in the budget, Ferri Middle School and Johnston High School would see reductions of $23,655 and $111,121 respectively. At the elementary level, Thornton and Winsor Hill would see significant decreases of $127,426 and $180,141, respectively.

Barnes, on the other hand, would receive the largest increase of any school at $206,911, while Brown Avenue would go up $76,144. The Graniteville School would see a reduction of $53,149, while the Early Childhood Center would increase slightly by $26,731.

DiLullo said these changes can be attributed to younger teacher populations at some schools receiving step increases.

“Those big fluctuations are salaried fluctuations,” DiLullo said. “So, for example, Barnes has a relatively young staff, so they’re getting all of their step increases. The schools that have the most veteran staff are at step 10 and teachers were very accommodating this year and most didn’t get a raise. We extended that contract a year. Our process is to meet with all directors and all principals and they present to us their needs.”

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