In a stark contrast to other Rhode Island communities — namely, Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Providence — Johnston is in relatively good financial shape.
That's not to say that the town's fiscal state has happened by accident — last year's tax increase was 94 cents per $1,000 (about a 4 percent hike in the residential tax rate), and the town has kept its contribution to the school district level for four years.
And this year, Mayor Joseph Polisena has announced that he's aiming to level fund all town departments — including the schools.
Following three sparsely-attended budget workshops, the school committee approved a fiscal 2013 spending plan that's still $345,000 above the mark set by the mayor.
But is the drive to hold down town costs a responsible move — or could it harm the schools?
Someone at the school department seems to think so — at the bottom of a recently-released summary of the cuts made by the school board was a note that stated: "The cuts... are extreme and put the district at risk."
[You can see the summary attached to this article.]
On the other hand, Polisena has explained that any increases to the town's payment to schools get "built in" to the following year's bottom line under the state's "maintenance of effort" guidelines.
Essentially, this means that successive years' budgets are based on what was spent the previous year — and that there can be no debate over whether or not those increases are needed in the following year.
Members of the school board acknowledged that this means they'll have to find savings in the three contracts that are up for renewal, for teachers, busing, and food service.
Similar to last year, school committee members aren't even hinting at the potential for a so-called Caruolo action, which allows school committees to sue towns.
Under the 1995 Caruolo Act, a key test for school departments is to show that they would not be able "to adequately run the schools for that school year with a balanced budget within the previously authorized [municipal] appropriation."
In recent lawsuits heard by Rhode Island courts, many decisions have been decided on the question of whether a school department's "basic education plan" — the essential services provided to students — would be harmed by a town's decision on its school contribution.
Here's your chance to have your say on this issue.
Do you think holding the town's payment to the school district is good management — or is it putting the schools' operations at risk?
Take a few minutes to review our past articles, then post your comments below.
Past coverage on this topic:
- School Proposal Still $345K 'Above Target,' Mar. 26, 2012
- School Board Trims Budget Plan, Mar. 21, 2012
- Johnston Schools Draft Budget, Fiscal 2013 [PDF],Mar. 19, 2012
- School Board Unveils FY2013 Budget Plan, Mar. 16, 2012
- Mayor's Budget Plan: 'Level Funding For Everybody,' Mar. 8, 2012