Officials make case for school spending in North Smithfield

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Saying the Budget Committee’s recommendation of maintenance-of-effort funding for the district would result in, “devastating,” cuts to programing, educators and school board members made their case to the Town Council for a $400,000 increase in the town’s allocation this week, at a public hearing on a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

“This is a status quo budget,” said School Committee Chairman James Lombardi. “There’s no substantial additions. There’s no new positions, no new programs.”

“Our students can’t afford and don’t deserve the drastic cuts that we would have to make,” said Vice Chairwoman Jean Meo.

The testimony comes following a recommendation by the Budget Committee that would only allot what’s required by Rhode Island’s maintenance of effort law – the same amount the district received last year. Budgeters pointed out that the school district has a surplus, and has or will receive $2.46 million in COVID-19-related assistance from the federal government this year.

At a continuation of the public hearing on the fiscal proposal, Lombardi noted that budgeters did propose allotting $100,000 to the district’s budget for capital projects, saying that funding could be, “postponed,” to another year, but the requested $400,000, or 2 percent increase, is needed.

“These funds will not be available as a surplus in subsequent years,” Lombardo said of the federal boost. “There’s prohibitions on how to use this money.”

“I’m proud to say we use our resources conservatively and correctly,” Lombardi said. “We managed everything responsibly and conservatively. We believe we are submitting a budget that is fair and responsible.”

Resident and teacher Tracy Lafreniere noted that the COVID-related funding is needed to help students who fell behind in the past year to catch up.

“I want you to understand why we need your support and why we need that funding,” Lafreniere said. “That money was always intended to address the learning gaps that were created by COVID.”

The teacher, a 23-year reading specialist in North Smithfield at the elementary level, noted that in the 2018/2019 school year around 80 percent of third grade students in town were reading at or above level. This year, that number is 68 percent, with around a third of students needing extras help following a difficult year.

“We are far from it being business as usual,” Lafreniere said. “We might need more support, and that was exactly the intention of those COVID funds.”

Math interventionist Amy Wright echoed the sentiment.

“At the middle schoo,l I see the real difference our systems and supports make for our students,” Wright said, saying there’s a growing need as result of the pandemic. “I’m asking you as the Town Council to trust the experts that we have.”

Wright pointed out that, “not long ago,” school board and council members in North Smithfield had a, “volatile,” relationship.

“I would just ask that you respect their expert opinion that they’re bringing to the table. They’re telling you what we need,” Wright said.

School Committee member Paul Jones pointed out what the district accomplished when the virus first hit the region.

“It was only 15 month ago that our district was trying to roll out a distance learning plan to the entire student body,” Jones said, noting that thanks to a well-run system North Smithfield was prepared, and also one of the few communities that was able to to hold commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020. “I’m asking you to recognize the sacrifices the school department has made. The school district never gave up on our students or our town.”

“A maintenance of effort budget does feel like we’re moving backwards,” Jones added. “I have faith in the council. I have faith in the administrator. I hope that you folks do the right thing.”

Meo noted that North Smithfield is known for having an excellent school system.

“We are trying to create opportunities to make it even better,” she said. “The cuts we will have to make based on the Budget Committee’s recommendation will be devastating.”

Their pleas did not seem to fall on deaf ears. Councilor Clarie O’Hara told the educators that they have her support.

“During these times I thought that our children’s mental well being was important,” O’Hara said of changes to education over the past year. “This isn’t going to be done overnight.”

“I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” O’Hara said.

Councilor Stephen Correveau noted that he’s had four kids in the North Smithfield school system.

“I personally am not a proponent of any type of level funding,” Correveau said.

Town Council President John Beauregard said that the council should not only hear about the district’s needs during budget season.

“We should be working more together,” said Beauregard, suggesting that the boards should meet quarterly. “We should be able to help you with your goals.”

“There was a time when there was a lot of battling going on between the Town Council and the School Committee and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Beauregard said.

Both the School Department’s budget proposal and recommendations of Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski and the budget board can be found here.

Councilors voted to continue the public hearing on the proposals until Monday, June 21.

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