Turning Around the Train

Apparently, I missed quite a show at the latest Budget Committee meeting in Tiverton, and it merits watching across the state. While East Providence is a battle occurring during free fall, Tiverton is an example of a municipality that can still choose to stop its train from speeding toward a collapsed bridge.
The town administrator and school department submitted their initial budget requests, on Thursday night, and there was some controversy over how seriously they should be taken and how much the public should treat these as actual government documents that will affect their lives. The usual process, as I understand it, is for the town administrator and superintendent to put together quick budget drafts to enable an unprepared town council and school committee to meet a charter-driven deadline. Over the next few months, the number typically grows, and then the Financial Town Meeting rubber stamps the budget.
That has to stop. My house is on the line.
My understanding is that the Budget Committee will have the full municipal budget on its Web page on Monday, but here’s the summary page (click for a larger view):

Note the 5%, $822,542.77, increase and the lack of response to the probable cut in state funding, which I’m told will likely amount to roughly $1,000,000 .
At least the school department acknowledged the expected state cut of $242,638 in its budget:

Of course, from the Tiverton taxpayer’s point of view, that admission mattered not at all, because the department already assumed an increase of taxes to the state cap of 4.75%, or $952,278. Moreover, the budget calls for an increase in expenditures of 4.06%, or $1,020,245, which is 46.4% greater than the expected increase in revenue. In other words, the district’s initial budget overspends by $323,376 — even with the maximum tax increase.
That’s for a district that will have 79 fewer students come the autumn.
The truly astonishing news from the school department is that the School Committee looks likely to pass the mostly retroactive increase in teacher pay on Tuesday night. The additional cost? $301,264. It’s one thing to give away money and then find one’s self short on unanticipated bills. It’s quite another thing to have the two numbers in front of you and still opt to sign the check.
It gets worse. To even get within a few hundred thousand dollars of a budget that’s already requested to grow by over a half-million, the district has to plan to reduce its staff by nine employees:

  • One full-time kindergarten teaching position
  • One grade 1 teaching position
  • Four full-time teaching positions at the middle school
  • Two full-time special education teaching assistant positions at the high school
  • One part-time elementary teaching assistant position

It also struck four new positions that it was considering, including a high school math coach who might have been able to do something about the town’s losing ground on its high schoolers’ math proficiency, which actually dropped to 24% (from 29%) in the latest round of NECAP scores (PDF.
And worse still: The “new” contract only lasts until August, so negotiations will have to resume in the very near future. When they do, the union will have been given no incentive to settle, because the principle of retroactive pay covering years of intransigence will have been reinforced, and it would clearly be a more profitable strategy to delay a final deal through these dark days of economic decline.
In Tiverton — as in many other places — the pain of the next few years is exacerbated, not alleviated, at ever tier of government. But there’s still a chance that citizens, working from the bottom up, can apply the brakes.

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