Unsustainable Spending Increases

On February 11, the South Kingstown School Committee adopted a budget for the next fiscal year and forwarded it to the Town Council for approval of a requested 2% increase in tax transfer.  On February 20, they met with the Council to sell their request.  The key rationale was that the increase in spending, despite a 2% reduction in enrollment, was “less than inflation”.  This point was made several times to support the idea that South Kingstown had developed a sensible, and perhaps austere budget.  Unfortunately, this point is barely substantiated and borderline disingenuous.

It comes down to 2 simple facts.  Current year spending, as projected by the district itself, is $62.4 million.  This is an undisputed, and documented fact that was explicitly presented to the Committee on February 11th.  On that same evening, they approved a 2021 spending plan of $64.4 million.  That $2 million dollar increase in spending, from the current year’s ACTUAL spending, is not less than inflation.  In fact, $2 million on top of this year’s $62.4 million is a 3.27% increase, more than double the 1.6% increase that social security beneficiaries are getting this year.

Drilling deeper, this increase is clearly seen in the salary lines of the proposed budget.  The $1mm+ increase from expected current year spending is 3.24%.  And that is net of 5 positions being reduced through attrition.

In the prior budget year, South Kingstown experienced significant anxiety as a green Committee wrestled with 8 figure budgets, most for the first or second time.  After the dust settled, the District “found” an extra $512,000, and reinstated some of the “cuts” that triggered the parade to the microphone during those budget meetings.  Since then, district has managed an additional $448,000 spending surplus in the current year.  What does that mean?  It means they took $1 million more than was needed last year.  Instead of acknowledging that, the new budget asks for a “small” increase over last years “BUDGET”.  This may be a true statement, but it is a false representation of the facts.  Last year’s “BUDGET” was an artificially inflated number as evidenced by the ACTUAL spending occurring under it.  The reality is this year’s ask is a pretty large amount over the ACTUAL spending. 

All this adds up to spending over $23,000 per student next year.  Stripping out the 377 students (page 21 from this document) that are differently abled, and the $12 million or so used in educating them, South Kingstown still spends about $21,000 per general education student without special needs.  Monsignor Clarke tuition before assistance is around $8k and Prout is around $15k.  Communities our size in Massachusetts spend $10 million to $20 million less.  Last year, I wrote about how we arrived here as a community.  It didn’t happen overnight.  It happens by outpacing inflation, especially as enrollment declines.  Increasing spending by 3.2% every year will compound in ways that will soon cripple South Kingstown. 

The situation is even more aggravated when looking at per pupil expenses.  It explains why there is a constant drumbeat from inside suggesting that per pupil spending can’t be used to compare districts.  While that is a fair statement for granular analyses of program costs, we can still look at total spending as a rough evaluation of efficiency.  If South Kingstown was within 5% of comparable districts, it would be one thing.  At 40% over districts of comparable size in Massachusetts, one can only conclude that there is plenty of funding already.   It does not need to be fixed in one budget, but it should not be allowed to get worse by continuing to outpace inflation.

With enrollment decline, spending per pupil accelerates and then factors in to the tuition South Kingstown must pay other districts and charter schools as residents choose those options.  This school year, per pupil spending for the number of students reported by the district is $21,832.  The next year request is to increase that spending to $23,021, a jump of 5.44%.  That is more than triple the Social Security cost of living adjustment! 

This is an unsustainable trajectory on top of an already inflated baseline.  It is requested on the leading edge of a meandering $92 million project that barely touches the actual needs of our schools and our roads.  It is simply unfair to ask a community to renew a spending mindset that races past the inflationary trends most have come to expect and tolerate. 

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