Bristol Warren School Committee torn on proposed budget cuts

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 2/14/24

The proposed $60.1 million general fund budget, which represents a 2% total increase in spending over the FY24 budget, includes a request for $387,866 more in local funding from Warren (a 2.7% increase over last year), and $704,633 from Bristol (a 2.4% increase over last year).

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Bristol Warren School Committee torn on proposed budget cuts


Holding their first public conversation as a full school committee on the proposed FY25 general fund budget that would take effect on July 1 and carry through the 2024/25 school year, the Bristol Warren School Committee were at odds with how to square a budget that required multiple cuts to teaching and support staff in order to limit the impact on Bristol and Warren taxpayers.

The proposed $60.1 million general fund budget, which represents a 2% total increase in spending over the FY24 budget, includes a request for $387,866 more in local funding from Warren (a 2.7% increase over last year), and $704,633 from Bristol (a 2.4% increase over last year).

Superintendent Ana Riley, in her presentation to the committee, explained that major cost drivers for the upcoming year primarily included mandatory increases to teachers’ salaries and healthcare through the new contract with the BWEA teachers’ union, as well as increases in costs for transportation and the amount of students going out of district for their education, which amounted to a little over $700,000 more than last year.

But the issue that generated the most discussion among committee members was the proposal to cut three social workers from the budget in order to reduce the impact on the budget and overall increase necessary from taxpayers.

For the past couple of years, the district had been funding five additional social workers thanks to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants made available during Covid. Those additional five social workers were spread throughout the district; two at Mt. Hope, one at Kickemuit Middle School, one at Hugh Cole, and one split between Guiteras and Rockwell. But that funding runs out in September.

Riley said on Tuesday morning that the district had been able to secure a separate grant to fund two of those positions, which left a delta of three social workers for which funding could not be identified and would need to be cut. The district maintained its usual cohort of five regularly-budgeted social workers (1 at Mt. Hope, 1 at KMS, 1 at Colt Andrews, 1 at Hugh Cole, and 1 split between Guiteras and Rockwell).

The budget draft also proposed cutting a reading specialist and librarian that had been dedicated at Guiteras as part of that school’s transition towards closure. Kindergarten and Grade 1 students will be moved from Guiteras to Colt Andrews next year. Guiteras and Rockwell would share one, full-time librarian.

Additionally, due to declining enrollment, the budget includes the cutting of four full-time teaching positions at Mt. Hope High School in each of the major subjects; English, math, science, and social studies. Riley said that two of those positions wouldn’t require layoffs due to retirements, but two of the positions may require layoffs if no additional retirements or voluntary departures happen before May.

Committee split on cuts versus impact to taxpayers
School Committee Treasurer Jessica Almeida made her opposition to cutting staff support positions loud and clear.

“I suggested that the cuts be made on the administrative side, which I was told could not happen…Social workers and reading specialists are needed in this district,” she said. “We are here to ensure that our students get what they need to thrive, which I believe is not currently being reflected in this proposed budget…In my opinion there should be absolutely no cuts that directly affect our students.”

School Committee member Carly Reich concurred with the concerns over losing social workers at a time when mental health concerns are paramount among kids.

“As a parent, as an elected official, as a mental health professional, the loss of these services I think are really scary and uncomfortable and I think they’re terribly premature,” she said. “I don’t think we have appropriately recovered from Covid and I think that has put a lot more pressure on our staff, and on our students. I don’t feel like losing those social workers aligns with our strategic plan. I think it will damage culture, I think it will damage what’s happening with our students, and I think it will ultimately damage staff morale. And that all makes me really nervous and uncomfortable.”

School Committee Secretary, Tara Thibaudeau, made a counter-argument that keeping costs down for taxpayers, particularly in financially-fraught Warren, was necessary to keep in mind.

“I understand and I support that we need the people in the classroom for the students. I strongly believe in the reading specialists and the social workers, I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think those are important,” she said. “We told the towns that we were going to stick to a 2% increase…We asked them to approve a $200 million school bond. I would like to stick to our word. I know that there are needs for these things, but the Town of Warren is in a financial crisis at the current moment. And a 2.7 increase is a lot different than a 3.4 increase.”

Almeida countered this point, saying, “To my knowledge, the entire full school committee as a whole did not promise anything…At least, I was not part of that promise.”

Riley explained on Tuesday morning that the cuts to social workers were not preferred, but anticipated as they knew the funding source was only temporary.

“It’s not a matter of if we would like to keep the social workers or not. We all would like to keep the social workers,” she said. “The issue is we have an operating budget that doesn’t support the additional social workers, and when we hired them, we always knew they were temporary…We knew we wanted to give kids two extra years of additional support while we had the funding, but we were never saying we’re going to put them here and keep them forever."

Riley said it was the school committee’s prerogative if they wanted to advocate for more revenue from Bristol and Warren taxpayers to fund the three social workers, but that would need to be approved by the Joint Finance Committee.

“If we can keep them, we will, but I am not sure we’re going to find the money in the budget,” Riley added. “Everything is down, we have cut everywhere.”

School Committee Chairperson Nicky Piper and Vice Chairperson Adam McGovern both agreed that it would be critical to deliberate further on the budget before voting on it to send to the Joint Finance Committee for consideration.

“We have two problems that are competing. We want to try and hold on to some of these support staff, but as well we want to try to minimize the impact to the taxpayer,” Piper said. “We have two weeks. I have been through the budget many, many times, closely, and I don’t come with a solution unfortunately. We have two weeks in which we need to be creative, we need to be respectful, and we need to really get to the bottom of how we might be able to solve these two competing problems that we have.”

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