Portsmouth's voters have spoken, soundly defeating a referendum Tuesday that would have restored $765,301 that the Town Council cut from the Fiscal Year 2010-11 school budget. In light of the outcome, school officials are now planning to present a deficit reduction plan to the School Committee next Tuesday.
Superintendent Susan Lusi and School Finance Director Mark Dunham did not return calls for comment on Wednesday, but Lusi e-mailed a brief statement to Patch.
"The Portsmouth community has spoken," she said. "The administration will be bringing a deficit reduction plan forward for the School Committee's consideration at its meeting of October 12."
Although it is not clear what cuts that plan would be recommending, school officials previously indicated that the largest cuts would be to areas not mandated under the Rhode Island Department of Education's Basic Education Program (BEP) – mainly cuts to art and music programs, as well as sports.
What is clear is that the school department will not be suing the town for additional funding under a Caruolo Act. Last month, the School Committee voted not to pursue the matter should the will of voters indicate a desire to accept the Town Council's reduced allocation.
Both sides reflected on the two-month-long budget battle Wednesday, a day after 29 percent of the town's voters turned out to weigh-in on the referendum, on which 2,198 voters opted to keep the current school budget vs. the 1,690 favoring the budget increase, which would have raised property taxes by 20 cents per thousand.
Save Our Schools (SOS)—the local educational advocacy group that had successfully gathered enough signatures to force the referendum and presented the case for the spending increase—and Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC)—the taxpayers' group that campaigned against the budget hike—both looked ahead to the Nov. 2 general election. The outcome of that election will help shape the educational funding debate and policy locally and statewide.
"We are disheartened by yesterday's results," said SOS Founder David Croston. "The public voted their conscience as they understood it. One of SOS' biggest roles in the next weeks will be to try to reiterate our arguments as to why these funds were needed. Even though we have lost, it is critically important to make sure that the data that we were using is still understood by the public."
Croston accused PCC and some political candidates of misrepresenting data about the school district's finances. "We think the misinformation that was put out into everyone's front lawn in a bag and a couple rocks helped drive a negative perception of the schools," he said. "We disagree with that. Up until the next three weeks, our goal is to try to double our efforts to try to educate the public."
Larry Fitzmorris, president of the PCC, denied that his group misrepresented the facts.
"They would like to presume our numbers are wrong and there's are right," he said. "Budget numbers are always in transition from what they are today to what they may be. We became surprised that the amount of reserve funds was as large as it was. The idea that we dreamed these up was false."
Croston, who is a former member of the School Committee and a current candidate, said that SOS—now officially incorporated as a referendum question advocacy group—may file as a political action committee in an effort to back candidates that support its agenda.
Croston predicted that the budget cuts would hurt even more due to Portsmouth's relatively conservative school budgeting.
"Portsmouth is that much more efficient than any other district (in the state)," he said. "We're really down to the bottom line. Even a one percent cut is significant and a cut that actually goes against programs."
Fitzmorris said that PCC will be interested to see the school administration's deficit reduction plan.
"Obviously, the referendum decided that issue," he said. "They're required by state law to adopt a final budget in balance. Expenditures have to be the same or less than revenues. They're going to have to make some adjustments. I presume they will make sacrifices in art education and music at the elementary level. That's the decision that the school committee makes."
Both sides agreed that parent-teacher organizations, along with sports booster clubs, and music and arts booster organizations would likely take on a greater fundraising role in an effort to offer private funding to offer art, music and sports programs to students.
Fitzmorris said that PCC has no plans to become a PAC. However, the group will endorse a slate of candidates and will also host a moderated forum for all local candidates Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the middle school.
Fitzmorris said that the forum will offer candidates of all political stripes an equal opportunity to present their cases to the voters. "We try not to make it partisan or biased," he said. "We don't ask loaded questions. We ask them questions relevant to public policy issues or as we see them. We've got some questions.
"Audience members get opportunity to ask them questions. Candidates are encouraged to bring their supporters."