'Gorilla' on Loose as Barrington Boards Seek to Cage Spending
The Barrington Town Council, School Committee and Committee on Appropriations hold a joint meeting of the minds that got testy over slow start of bargaining with teachers' union.
They didn’t agree on a way to deal with Barrington’s 800-pound gorilla Monday evening. But they did give the Ad Hoc Budget Forecast Committee an additional charge to come up with ways to share services and resources to save money.
The gorilla is the teachers’ contract, which makes up the majority of Barrington’s operating budget. It ignited some sniping from the Committee on Appropriations at the joint session with the School Committee and Town Council in Town Hall.
“I am very concerned that you won’t be far enough along" about bargaining that has just gotten underway, said Kathy Cadigan, chair of the appropriations committee.
In past years, Cadigan said, negotiations got started much earlier in the budget season. The appropriations committee usually has had some inkling of what to expect by the second week of February, she said. Not this year with the first meaningful sessions being held in February.
School Committee chair Robert Shea explained that the election season pushed off the process for several weeks as the school board reorganized, and then they didn’t select a negotiator to take the place of the superintendent on the bargaining team. That didn’t occur until a few weeks ago.
Cadigan said she estimated that there has been a nine-week delay from what was a typical time frame in the past. That would appear to make it very difficult to go to the Financial Town Meeting with a budget that takes into account the result of negotiations.
Tim Sweetser, vice chair of the appropriations committee, also questioned the delay. He said he still isn’t convinced that the School Committee understands the impact of the teachers’ contract on town spending.
“The eight-hundred pound gorilla is wages and benefits,” he said.
Joel Hellmann, another member of the appropriations committee, asked the School Committee members if they have a sense of teacher salaries in other towns.
“I did an analysis,” he said, based on salaries for teachers with 20 years on the job with a master’s degree and longevity pay.
“Barrington is by far the highest,” Hellmann said, “10 to 15 percent higher in some cases. Teachers generally start lower. But we’re paying significantly more – 9 to 10 percent for the average teacher.”
The ad hoc budget forecast committee, which painted a rather dire picture of spending in Barrington last May if the status quo continues, will get its chance to try to save money.
The Town Council, which set up the committee, voted unanimously to charge it with coming up with specific recommendations to consolidate and share school and municipal services and resources.
Town Councilor Bill DeWitt, who suggested that a subcommittee take on this responsibility, said: “Stripping out duplication is necessary. We need a subcommittee to take a meaningful look.”
Town Council President June Speakman suggested that the budget forecast committee take on that task. It probably won’t get started during this budget season, which has its own demand on time. But it will look at operations in time for next year.
Ron Tarro, finance director for the schools, gave everyone an update on school buildings. He said a list of priorities for the $2.4 million that will be spent to rectify health and safety issues is being prepared.
Tarro also reiterated that building a new middle school is estimated to be about $3 million less expensive than a “gut renovation” of the existing building -- $36 million versus $39 million. At the former expense, he said, about $1.8 million will be added to Barrington’s debt service each year for 20 years.
Given the 18 percent decline in enrollment that is projected over the next 10 years, Cadigan asked, is there any value in looking at other scenarios? Such as refurbishing Hampden Meadows and moving the fourth- and fifth-graders back into the other elementary schools?
“Is there a Plan B?” asked Sweetser, so that Barrington doesn’t overbuild. “I would hate to build a beautiful new middle school and have half of the classrooms empty.”
Tarro and School Committee member Patrick Guida both said that won’t happen.
“The Rhode Island Department of Education won’t less us overbuild,” said Guida.
The joint meeting also included a briefing from Superintendent Michael Messore on the new five-year Strategic Plan for the schools, which focuses on "optimizing dollars for learning" and "making the best use of available resources."
But, Messore said, the Strategic Plan also recognizes that the “status quo is going to get us nowhere.” And that will involve additional spending on technology, professional development, and implementing the Common Core curriculum.
Town Manager Peter DeAngelis Jr. gave an update on the four municipal employee union contracts, which all agreed to put caps on benefits paid to retirees while getting roughly 2 percent wage hikes each year over the next three years.
“They all stepped up,” DeAngelis said of the police officers, firefighters, dispatchers and public works employees who all recognized the town's budget limitations.