By Meg O’Neil
The Newport School Committee/City Council Liaison Subcommittee met for the first time this year on Tuesday, Jan. 29. There were some position changes on the Subcommittee.
Representing the School Committee on the Subcommittee, Chairman Charles Shoemaker and Vice-Chair Jo Eva Gaines joined the Subcommittee’s board, taking the places of former Subcommittee members Rebecca Bolan and Robert Leary, who remain on the School Committee but not on the Subcommittee. School Committee member Thomas Phelan sits on the Subcommittee for a second term.
Representing the City Council on the Subcommittee were newly elected councilor Marco Camacho and returning councilors Naomi Neville and Justin McLaughlin.
Discussion on the Pell School kicked off the meeting, with School Superintendent John Ambrogi stating that the proposal for the use of modular classrooms in the event that there is over-enrollment at the new school may prove too costly for the district.
Despite recommendations from a recently formed Pell Enrollment Options Subcommittee that suggested temporary modular classrooms be installed in the case there are more elementary students than can fit into the Pell School, plans for the modular units have stalled. Ambrogi said the initial cost for the installation of the modular rooms could be $200,000, and an additional $60,000 for every year they are used. He also said the Pell Enrollment Options Subcommittee did not take finances for the temporary classrooms into consideration.
Ambrogi said that the school district plans to initiate rolling registration that would help tabulate student enrollment numbers over the course of months instead of during the last weeks ahead of the school’s opening in September this year.
“We don’t want to open a school with four vacant classrooms,” Ambrogi said. “We don’t want to take additional steps early on that didn’t need to happen.”
Councilor Neville then requested an update on the school’s ongoing search for a new accountant for the business office.
Ambrogi said that despite advertising twice for the position, only one applicant met qualifications, but after the interview process, was not hired. Additionally, there has been difficulty in updating the district’s Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCoA), which is a method of accounting that provides the ability to compare school districts' financial data in a consistent manner.
Because of a high turnover rate in the school department’s business office over the last few years, the UCoA system was largely ignored. It is currently being worked on by Director of Administrative Services Joan Tracey.
“UCoA is a monster, and no one wanted to tackle the monster,” Ambrogi said. “It should have been on line two years ago. It is so difficult to bring on line that people just didn’t do it. We thought they had, but they did not.”
The discussion on UCoA segued into the school budget. Because UCoA is not yet up to date, Ambrogi said budget data is incomplete, a situation he described as “very frustrating.”
Shoemaker recommended that an observer from the City Council side of the Subcommittee sit in on the School Committee meeting when the budget is presented. That person could then report back to the City Council, easing the “great distrust” that he said exists between the School Committee and the City Council.
Neville asked how having a city representative sit in on the school’s budget meeting would be different from their usual joint meetings. She also said the issue of distrust between the two groups often stems from the school department’s lack of clarity in their budgets.
School Committee members defended their budgets, saying that large unknown variables sway the bottom line. “The facts change from meeting to meeting,” Gaines said. “One student who comes into the district with severe needs can wipe out a budget.”
The Subcommittee then discussed health care and life insurance liabilities, or “Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB),” that both the city and the school department face.
Over the past two years, the school department has decreased its health-care cost liability from $70,000,000 to $62,000,000 by reducing lifetime health-care benefits for employees. While the group agreed that it was a good first step, much more needs to be done.
“If we continue down this road, we aren’t going to be paying for education, but for health care,” Shoemaker said.