Changing course, Mayor Elorza promises boost in school funding

Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Mayor Jorge Elorza is planning the first increase in funding for the city’s school department since 2011, backtracking on a budget projection his office gave the City Council that stated he would level fund the district for another five years.

The mayor changed course on the five-year projection to maintain the city’s commitment to the school department at $124.9 million a year through 2022 after Eyewitness News raised questions about massive deficits district officials are predicting in the coming years.

“When we invest in our schools, we are investing in the future of Providence,” Elorza said in a statement. “The city’s contribution to our schools has not increased in six years but that is something that will change this year. Combined with last year’s restructuring of PPSD’s central office, the purchase of over 8,000 laptops, and school building upgrades of $12M, increasing the city’s investment in our kids positions us to deliver on the promise of letting every child achieve their dreams.”

Elorza stopped short of starting how much he plans to increase the city’s financial commitment to its school department when he unveils his budget in April. He said the city will continue to use “conservative estimates” in its projections.

The mandatory five-year projection on Providence’s budget delivered to the City Council last week shows the school department’s shortfall could grow from $3.9 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year to $57 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The city side of the ledger projects annual surpluses of between $8.2 million and $11.3 million in each of the next five years, but the city charter requires the city to cover any budget deficits in the school department, according to Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza.

Crowell said “there is less certainty” for the school department budget because Providence will enter the final year of the state educating funding formula in 2018, leaving questions about whether state aid will continue to grow in the years that follow. She also said it’s unclear whether a temporary increase in state funding for English language learners approved by the General Assembly last year will remain in place.

Crowell also acknowledged the expansion of charter schools was also a factor in the city’s budget projection. In December, the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education approved an expansion for the Achievement First mayoral academy over the next 10 years, but Elorza has a say in how rapidly the organization can grow because he chairs the its board.

Providence’s school budget is funded primarily through three sources: state aid, city aid and federal aid. In the current fiscal year, the district is receiving $232.5 million in state funding, $124.9 million in city funding and $33.8 million in federal funding. (The district also receives about $15 million a year in federal funding for school lunch programming.)

providence-school-funding-chart

While annual state aid has grown by $56 million since 2011, federal funding has fallen by $25.5 million during the same period. The city, which is required by state law to provide at least the same amount of funding to its schools as the previous year’s budget, has given the district $124.9 million each year since 2011.

At the same time, roughly 98% of district spending is tied up in fixed costs, including union contracts, pension payments and agreements with service providers, according to Nicholas Hemond, the president of Providence School Board.

Hemond said current city leaders “have inherited a system where we’re paying for decades of institutional costs,” making it very difficult for the city to invest in additional programs.

Hemond said he is pleased Elorza is promising to increase funding. He said every dollar of new funding would result in “additional money we can spend on English language leaners, increasing personalized learning opportunities, wraparound social and emotional services and outside-of-school enrichment activities.”

“Without more money coming in from somewhere else, we will continue to face the challenges we face,” Hemond said. “We try to do the best we can with what we have.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan