MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MAY 24, 2023) – Year in, year out, the Town of Middletown seems to find a way to fund its annual budget without major impacts on service.

During an all-day budget workshop Saturday in Town Hall, the Town Council learned most of the new dollars in the Fiscal 2024 budget are already earmarked and committed.

Whether it’s due to covering rising costs in education, replacing lost non tax revenues like grants or potential new expenses like debt service for a new middle-high school, Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said there’s little else to go around.

Instead, Brown and other town officials said it’s time for every department to tighten their belts and make necessary decisions without adversely impacting students, residents, businesses and the community as a whole.

“I know the goal of the staff is to make sure we’re careful and thorough and that’s accurate for you to adopt…” Brown said. “It’s important to cover what we can and can’t do. Last year, we were able to make a lot of adjustments to correct some issues. Our ability to do that is diminished this year. I don’t want any false idea there’s a magic trick to be performed to create opportunities because they are limited in this year’s budget.”

“We have some decisions to make,” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said. “There has to be that balance with the needs for our kids and what our taxpayers can afford. We’ve always talked about that and we’ll always do what’s best for the town.”

Coming into this season, school officials said even if the education budget received 4 percent increase — the maximum amount allowed under state law — it wouldn’t be enough.

Assistant Superintendent Michelle Fonseca spoke about the successes seen with Middletown schools — and the need for continued support. That’s because of a growing English Language Learner population, declining state aid, sunsetting grants, higher special education costs and other expenses. 

Citing recently released testing Local Education Agency data, Fonseca said the schools have seen a high level of growth in some areas, but more money was necessary to help Middletown maintain what it has. See https://www.middletownri.com/DocumentCenter/View/8464/NYCU-Account?bidId= for a write up about those results.

“Any barriers that exist for our students to access learning, we’re trying to remove, whether that be transportation, whether that be language, whether that be food, whether that be hygiene materials,” Fonseca said. “We’re trying to remove those barriers and it’s not easy because we need more staff to do that.”

To a person, council members said they fully supported offering the best education possible to every Middletown student, a point they emphasized again and again. At the same time, they noted there was only so much money to go around and how much taxpayers could shoulder.

Pushing back on the narrative that the Town of Middletown hadn’t adequately funded its schools, council members said school administrators needed to do more. More reaching out to local legislators for increased funding to offset state mandates, more seeking alternative sources of money and more out of the box thinking to overcome obstacles.

In response, educational leaders said they’re trying, but there’s only so much they could do. 

“We appreciate the support during a very difficult time in education,” Fonseca said. “I don’t think we’ve ever faced the pressure that we’ve faced in the last few years. Socially, emotionally, academically and we’re still feeling those results. Our kids still need a lot more than they used to.”

Based on the figures presented Saturday, 16 staff cuts were expected as a result of the proposed education budget. Among those include deans at Middletown High and Gaudet Middle schools, two elementary school reading specialists, an English Language Learner specialist and two guidance positions.

Several were attributed to the loss of grant money, something local leaders the schools should have prepared for instead of leaving the problem at the council’s feet.

“Why didn’t we plan for these positions and put them into the budget over time?” Councilman Christopher Logan asked. “It’s no different than what the town putting money aside for (the eight additional) firefighters covered by a SAFER grant.”

Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said because of the dissolution of the regional special education program, those projected costs were expected to rise about $700,000 in Fiscal 2024. Kraeger said the proposed special education budget in Fiscal 2024 was expected to be about $9 million, up from about $6.5 million a couple years ago. 

School officials said approximately 20 percent of the district’s about close to 2,000 students are classified as “special needs,” or about 400 pupils. Kraeger said the special education program for Fiscal 2024 would require 86 employees.

Council members said they could not understand why other communities were seeing their special education costs drop, but Middletown was looking at a significant rise. In response, school officials said Middletown is known as a district with a very good special education program and has a number of high cost students the community must provide education for until age 21.

Councilman Dennis Turano said he’s had several residents approach him, questioning why the town doesn’t outsource its special education program and simply cut a check for those services. Overall, Turano said he’d like to see more collaboration between the town and schools, including weekly updates and strategy sessions.

“How are other communities doing this (dealing with rising special education costs)?” Rodrigues asked. “That’s what I want to know. We need to look at other communities, like communities and see what their budget, see what type of programs they’re offering…As things get tighter and tighter, (you) just can’t come before us and say ‘This is it guys. You have to fund it.’”

“We need to push back (with the state)…” Turano said. “What’s wrong is the acceleration of how much this is going to cost the taxpayer in town. We’re trying on one hand to keep the town affordable and we’re trying to build (affordable) housing and families. It’s a bigger picture.”

“How can there be a plan when we don’t have the appropriations?” School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler said, a point refuted by Rodrigues, who said in recent years, that claim doesn’t hold water.

Councilman Peter Connerton said he’s heard residents question why they should approve a new $190 million middle-high school when there continue to be financial issues on the education side.

“I do want to thank the School Department, the School Committee, everybody for your presentations,” Connerton said. “I want to thank the principals, the teachers, the staff, you work awfully hard and the good work you do, but we need to go forward and need to work together. We need transparency, we need honesty.”

The town administrator Brown said all town departments are dealing with similar issues and were working hard to hold the line on spending. 

The Middletown Police and information technology departments are expected to brief the council on their proposed budgets at its June 5 meeting.

Public hearings on the proposed budget where residents and businesspeople can speak on any aspect of the figures are planned for June 21 and 28 at 6 pm in Town Hall. The council is expected to adopt its proposed Fiscal 2024 budget following the June 28 hearing.

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