Councilors balk at $1.8 million school request

Department decreases proposed budget by $750,000

Town Council President John Pacheco

BURRILLVILLE – Calling the decision to request aa $1.8 million increase “immature,” “unrealistic,” “disrespectful,” “childish,” and even “lazy,” Town Councilors this week made clear they would not consider the budget proposal first submitted by the Burrillville School Department.

The comments were delivered at the board’s Wednesday night meeting, while just down the street at a separate special meeting, School Committee members were at work cutting some $750,000 from their initial request.

The committee first voted to present the $1.8 million increase at a budget workshop in December. The budget included $185,000 for capital improvements, but contractual obligations such as benefits for teachers and other staff were the largest drivers of the district’s growing financial need.

State law, however, limits the amount a town cannot legally raise in revenue from taxes from year to year, and if the request were honored, the council would be forced to meet that cap, handing the amount entirely to schools.

In response to the request, Councilor Donald Fox sent a letter to School Committee Chairman Mark Brizard stating in part, “there are other competing needs each year for operational budget concerns and to assume that you can annually propose budgets that take up every cent of a full tax increase to the cap in unrealistic.”

“Are we not all better served by working in reality rather than fantasy land?” Fox asked.

This week, councilors seemed virtually united in the sentiment.

“There seems to be some misinformation floating around the School Committee about the Town Council,’ said Councilor Stephen Rawson. “Our job is to uphold the state law.”

“They treat us like they’re negotiating a contract for the union,” Rawson continued. “They need to realize they don’t only represent the schools. They represent the taxpayers as well. It’s not fair to us to waste our time to ask for such a thing.”

Councilor Raymond Trinque took his reaction further.

“We’ve given more than we can afford to give year after year after year,” said Trinque. “It’s borderline disrespectful and it’s definitely rude. That kind of request is childish. It’s disrespectful and lazy.”

Council President John Pacheco pointed out that “by the School Department’s own numbers,” more than one third of kids in Burrillville live at or below the poverty line.

Town Council President John Pacheco

“It’s not our fault,” said Pacheco. “We did all we can do. The School Department has gotten the biggest year after year increases of anyone. $1.8 (million) is a waste of all our time.”

Town Manager Michael Wood told councilors that he had met with school officials since the request was submitted.

“I think they are aware that your concerns are legitimate, and they’re going to have to sharpen their pencils,” said Wood.

Wood recommended that councilors not blame Supt. Michael Sollitto for the request. Sollitto replaced nine-year Supt. Frank Pallotta in July, and the budget proposal voted on by School Committee is the first submitted under his leadership.

Committee member Donison Allen cast the only vote against the $1.8 million increase at the School Committee’e meeting in December, voting to instead ask the town for $1.1 million more.

Supt. Michael Sollitto

“He’s not driving this bus,” said Wood of Sollitto. “Let’s give him a chance to do some things.”

Just down the road at a meeting at the school administration building, the pencils were being sharpened.

School Committee members voted to cut $753,830 from their initial $1,814,056 million increase for a total of $1,060,226 more than town’s contribution from fiscal year 2019.

The number was reached by cutting $252,000 from a retirement savings account and $151,786 from out-of-district tuitions.
Committee members plan to save another $350,044 through staffing reductions, with the positions that will be reduced to be determined by enrollment and need.
It’s unclear if the cuts will be enough to make school and town expectations meet. But councilors indicated a more realistic approach would at least allow conversations about the district’s fiscal plans to be less hostile.

“It always seems like they make it an us versus them every year and frankly, I’m tired if that,” said Councilor Jeremy Bailey.

“It’s not a negotiation,” said Pacheco. “We should be working together.”

Councilors Fox and Amanda Gingell were not present for the Wednesday night meeting.

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