Westerly Board of Finance begins work on budgets; schools first | Where is

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WEST — The Finance Council has begun its review of the School Committee’s proposed budget of $59,276,033 for 2022-23, an increase of $885,528 or 1.52% over current spending.

The council kicked off its compressed season of reviewing spending plans for education, municipal government, the transfer station and water and sewer services at a meeting devoted to the schools’ proposed budget on Tuesday. Council will continue its review of the education budget at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. tonight in the Council Chambers at City Hall and may make a final recommendation either at the conclusion of the meeting or at a scheduled meeting or Saturday morning. The finance commission has an advisory role and makes recommendations to the municipal council.

Cindy Kirchhoff, the school district’s director of finance and operations, presented the budget with school committee chair Diane Chiaradio Bowdy seated beside her. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alica Storey was available remotely. Other members of the school committee participated remotely via the internet or by telephone.

Members of the Finance Council asked for clarification on a few points but mainly took advantage of the meeting to listen. They planned to email school officials more detailed questions and discuss these points tonight.

The proposed budget would require an allocation of local tax funds of $50,025,674, an increase of $966,211 or 1.97% over the current budget. The proposed increase in local tax funds to support the budget is partly driven by a 1% decrease in state assistance to the district for special education.

Salaries and benefits for teachers and other district employees make up $47.7 million of the proposed budget, an increase of $916,000, which is broken down into $533,000 for salaries, $117,000 for pension increases , $240,000 for health insurance and $26,000 for other benefits. The budget is based on the district having the equivalent of 489 full-time employees.

Purchased services are expected to decrease by $279,000, tuition expenses for students attending district schools for vocational and technical programs are expected to decrease by $167,848, and charter school tuition is expected to decrease by $100,715. Expenses for supplies and equipment would increase by $99,092 and equipment costs, including new technology equipment, would increase by $151,860 under the proposed budget.

The proposed budget is also based on a net decrease in district employment equivalent to 1.89 positions. New positions on offer include athletic trainer; special education teacher due to increased enrollment in an elementary school behavior support program; a financial assistant to replace the position of deputy financial director, which will disappear; part-time career and technical program coordinator at Westerly High School, part-time social studies teacher; part-time paraprofessional; two executive assistant positions to replace two secretarial positions that will be abolished; and two part-time positions in special education.

The other positions that would be cut are four bus monitors, a bus driver and a part-time paraprofessional.

The district has reduced its employee base by more than 59 positions since 2019, according to Kirchhoff’s presentation.

Council Chairman Stephen Lynner said he plans to analyze the number of employees in the district by comparing it to student enrollment over time. Board member Paula Brouillette said education officials have responded well to declining enrollment but said they will need a plan for the future to deal with the decline state aid due to the drop in the number of pupils attending district schools.

“I think they’ve done a good job dealing with this, but they continue to have a declining student population,” Brouillette said.

Board member Ken Julian asked if officials had studied projected enrollment trends. Board members said they did not have up-to-date information.

A study of district demographics by McKibben Demographics published in 2021 concluded that the number of students in the district would decrease by 48 students from 2021-22 to 2026-27 and student enrollment would increase by 122 students from 2026- 27 at 2031-32. The study was conducted in conjunction with the city’s proposed school redevelopment project, which is currently being developed.

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