$45M in state funding for school districts, charters in limbo as budget battle drags on

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island General Assembly’s failure to approve a budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 has left $45 million in new education funding for school districts and charter schools in question, according to an analysis released Monday by the R.I. Department of Education.

Officials from RIDE briefed school superintendents and charter school leaders during conference calls Monday morning on the potential ramifications of the state’s inability to pass a budget.

State law requires departments to operate with the same funding levels as they had in the previous year when a new budget isn’t approved, so the updated figures reflect the state’s appropriation for the education funding formula for the 2016-17 fiscal year. But the funding levels for individual districts aren’t identical to last year because the formula reflects more recent student data.

Both the House and Senate approved budgets that include $45 million in new funding for schools, but the two sides have been unable to agree on a finalized $9.2-billion tax-and-spending plan since the Senate made a slight adjustment to the proposal on June 30. The unusual move prompted House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to send his colleagues home for the summer. As of last week, there was no sign of when a new budget will be approved.

Assuming legislators eventually approve a budget, districts and charter schools could receive their funding increases retroactively. But Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said Monday that is not a guarantee.

“The budget office has clearly stated that there is no guarantee that local communities and school districts will be made whole if and when the House and Senate finish their work and pass a budget,” Wagner said. “For every day that goes by without a budget, new revenue initiatives will be delayed, which could result in the need for further reductions in the final fiscal year 2018 budget.”

Wagner continued: “This is a significant challenge in an already difficult fiscal environment, and we’re grateful to our partners in the districts and charters for their patience and hard work. We’re here to support them however we can, and will continue to update them with information and guidance as it becomes available.”

Mattiello, D-Cranston, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. A spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, pointed to previous statements encouraging the House to reconvene “as soon as possible to consider the state budget as passed by the Senate, including the minor but very important taxpayer protections that have been added.”

If no budget is approved, every district and charter school in the state would stand to lose. In Providence, the state’s largest district, officials have been told they will operate with an appropriation that is $12.6 million less than anticipated. Pawtucket ($4.5 million), Woonsocket ($3 million) and Cranston ($3 million) are also among the districts that could take a large hit without General Assembly approval of a budget.

Local school leaders were hesitant to discuss the potential impact of reduced levels of funding Monday, saying they need more time to analyze their budgets.

“Due to the complex, categorical nature of education funding, until the Providence Public School District receives further detail and has time to thoroughly analyze options, we will not be able to determine specific programmatic impacts of the projected loss in state funding to education,” Laura Hart, a spokesperson for Providence schools, said in a statement. “However, it is obvious that without a timely resolution to a budget impasse, PPSD will suffer a significant financial loss that will directly affect students and teachers.”

On the charter side, the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academies would be at risk of losing $784,000 if no budget is approved this year. Achievement First’s two mayoral academies would face a $473,000 reduction in funding.

“​I am truly concerned for the children of Rhode Island,” Jeremy Chiappetta, executive director of Blackstone Valley Prep, said in a statement. “As I look at the difficult decisions we will have to make here at BVP, and as I talk to other district and charter leaders across the state, this situation is dire. I hope that we, as Rhode Islanders, can come together, and do so quickly.”

In an email sent to his members last week, Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said past experience means it is likely districts will be made whole when a budget is approved. But he warned that other types of school funding – such as a stream of money for English language learners – could be at risk if the impasse drags out until November, when the state holds its revenue estimating conference.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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