Governor Lincoln Chafee is proposing an increase of $6.3 million in state aid for the Cranston School District next year — about $1.6 more than the $4.8 million Superintendent Peter Nero was projecting.
Since Nero’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget asks the city for an additional $1.6 million over last year’s appropriation, the district won’t have to make major cuts to balance its budget even if the mayor or City Council rejects Nero’s request for an increase.
This positive news suggests something that would have seemed unimaginable even two years ago might be coming true: after several consecutive years of shortfalls, drastic cuts and lots of pain, the city’s financial woes appear to be easing.
While other cities and towns are facing state intervention and bridge loans, or, in the case of Providence, the threat of bankruptcy, Cranston is the phoenix rising from ashes.
“I would say that Cranston is the best positioned city in the state right now in terms of finances,” Nero said today in a telephone interview.
In fact, the district could be posting surpluses of upwards of $4 million per year in a few years if current trends continue and Nero said the community shouldn’t be surprised if the School Committee soon starts looking at how to re-implement programs that were cut during the worst of the district’s hard times in the recent past.
But there still is a long way to go and the city’s taxpayers can ill afford more tax increases. Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung has said that the city’s taxpayers are at their limit and the Governor’s proposed budget seems to agree. Cranston will be eligible for an additional $1.2 million in state aid because it qualifies as a “distressed” community, according to Chafee’s proposed budget — a term that is at odds with the city’s true financial picture, Fung said, but reflective of the fact taxpayers are strapped.
The district is also still responsible for paying the city back more than $7 million as part of a long-term deficit repayment plan and is on the hook for $1.5 million this year. Nero noted that if the city does give the district $1.6 million more in fiscal 2013, it would come in the form of forgiving of some of the district’s debt to the city.
And everything hinges on what happens as the Governor’s budget gets in the hands of the General Assembly, which did away with most of the major components of Chafee’s proposed budget last year.
Still, Cranston is far from where it was four years ago as the worst of the economic downturn was yet to come. Nero said he has taken many beatings since he became superintendent four years ago as he’s had to cut the district to the bone to deal with spiraling deficits and evaporating state aid in the tens of millions. It hurt cutting middle school sports and music. It hurt eliminating nearly 200 staff members. Teachers and staff members shared in the pain by offering millions in concessions and increases to their medical care costs.
“Cranston dealt with it ourselves,” Nero said, and it was a bitter pill to swallow.
"But it was good medicine," Nero said, since the district is now poised to begin filling the gaps and rebuilding what was dismantled to get through hard times.
And it presents an opportunity for the district to re-think the things it cut as it brings them back. The gifted and talented program, for example, was developed 10 year ago and has been gone for three years.
"A lot has changed in 10 years and we may want to do things differently when we bring the program back," Nero said.