UPDATE: JFC votes to fund half the increase school district wanted

Committee approves a 2 percent increase in local aid to regional schools

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The Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee voted Thursday to increase the two towns' financial commitment to the school district by 2 percent, or just over $700,000. The increase was half of what the school district had requested.

The committee voted 7-2 to approve the increase in the towns' financial committment to a total of $35.9 million. The district had requested $36.6 million. The local funding adds to $18.6 million in state finding to give the school district a total operating budget of about $54.4 million. With state aid diminishing, the total school budget will increase by just more than $215,000 over the 2016-17 school year. The state cut aid to the school district by 2.8 percent — more than $400,000 — this year.

The cost to both towns will be split roughly 70/30, with Bristol paying about $25.1 million and the smaller Warren paying about $10.7 million. In Bristol, the school budget will cost the owner of a $350,000 home about $48 a year. The full budget would cost the same resident about $101 a year.

The approved budget, according to School Committee Chairman Paul Silva, is simply not enough to fund all the initiatives the district wants to provide to students.

"I'm disappointed. It's difficult to continue providing adequate education when the committee's not even funding us at the level the state says it should," Mr. Silva said immediately after Thursday night's meeting at Mt. Hope High School. "We want to find things to cut that won't directly affect the kids. That's difficult at this point."

As Superintendent Mario Andrade pointed out during a JFC meeting the week before, contractual obligations like employee salaries and benefits eat up 97 percent of the budget request, leaving little room to make cuts when the request is not fully funded. Mr. Silva further noted that cost increases of sending some special needs students and vocational students out of district may eat up the district's entire budget increase.

"Where does that money come from? The kids that are left behind," Mr. Silva said.

Earlier in the meeting, the chairman joined Mr. Andrade and several residents in the audience to fully fund the budget request, a move the committee rarely takes. Mr. Silva told the committee members — made up of Bristol and Warren town council members, along with Bristol Town Manager Steven Contente — that the school district has gotten a local funding increase of just 3 percent since 2009. In that time, for example, Bristol's municipal budget has increase more than 30 percent.

"Shame on you. Your children are the ones who are suffering," Mr. Silva said. "Set your priorities right. Schools are the first thing you should be funding."

JFC Chairman Andy Tyska seemed to agree as he opened Thursday's meeting asking the committee to meet the district's request. He noted that fully funding the request would cost a homeowner

"What we need to consider is funding the entire budget," Mr. Tyska said. "A lot of work went into getting that number. It's a good budget. I'd like to see discussion around supporting this budget and fully funding it."

Residents in the audience agreed. Every member of the public who spoke Thursday supported fully funding schools, even if it means a local property tax increase. District teacher and Bristol resident Trish Wilner said it is "embarrassing" that the JFC has chosen not to fully fund schools since 2009, forcing the district to do more with less.

"You always get what you pay for. In the school district, we've gotten more than we paid for," Ms. Wilner said. "Education is everything."

"We have to continue to be able to compete with surrounding communities," said Bristol resident Carly Reich before the vote Thursday. "We should find more creative ways to increase tax dollars. We have to fund schools. Please choose to fully invest in our children."

Warren Town Councilman Steve Thompson had other ideas, proposing the 2 percent increase, a cut of the 4 percent the district had requested.

"That's what I believe is a reasonable number both towns can afford," Mr. Thompson said.

Bristol Town Council Chairman Nathan Calouro agreed. "It's not what they're asking for, but it's still a significant increase over last year," he said.

Warren Town Councilman Joseph DePasquale, who appeared to express support for fully funding schools during the JFC meeting the previous week, walked those comments back at the beginning of the meeting Thursday. He said giving the school district its full request, combined with other budget increases in that town, would put Warren over the state-mandated 4 percent cap on annual tax increases.

"We went through the difficult belt-tightening Bristol has gone through," said Mr. Depasquale. "It's not like we're cutting the district this year, but we are at the cap if it was fully funded."

Only Mr. Tyska and Warren Town Councilwoman Keri Cronin voted against Mr. Thompson's motion to cut the increase by half, preferring the fully fund the request.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.