Warren residents affirmed the Town Council-approved $24 million budget at Town Meeting Monday night, voting to level-fund the Bristol-Warren School District in opposition to the Joint Finance Committee
Residents voted 109-52 against a motion to increase Warren's funding to the Bristol-Warren School District by 2.25 percent, , a total of $12.1 million. Instead, Town Meeting approved level-funding the district, which could put the town in hot water.
Voters considered the school and municipal budgets separately. Earlier, they voted 83-68 to separate the budgets, allowing them to discuss and vote specifically on school funding. Voters shot down a motion to consider every department budget separately.
"It seems to me that is the issue here tonight," said Zoning Chairman Michael Gearhardt, who motioned to separate the school and municipal budgets.
Indeed, school funding was the meeting's major issue. Warren resident Bill Estrella motioned that the town fund the school system to the full amount the joint committee approved — $12.1 million — a motion met with opposition from Town Council President Chris Stanley, who has been .
"I'm a teacher, but I'm here to tell you it's too much," said Town Council President Chris Stanley, noting Warren is smaller in population and taxable real estate than Bristol. "Be warned, to increase our budget beyond the minimim has extraordinancry consequences for years to come. There's an in ordinate amount of administration that needs to be cut (from the school district). That number is going to grow larger. We're talking $11 million, $12 million now. We're gonna be talking about $19 million if we don't stop it now."
"We are bare bones. I've said it over and over again, Stanley continued. "We can't simply afford it. We can't afford it as a community. It hurts too much."
Funding the school department to the full allotment — a 2.25 percent increase over fiscal 2012 — without further cutting the municipal budget may have result in a 21 cent increase to the property tax rate. Level-funding the school district would result in a decrease in the property tax rate — from $17.15 per thousand of taxable value to $17.04.
Residents who spoke Monday night were split on the school's funding level, sometimes sniping at each other and their elected officials. Some, speaking in favor of fully funding the schools, pointed out that the school district could sue the town if Warren level-funds the budget. Town Solicitor Tony DeSisto confirmed state law requires Warren to fund at the level the Joint Financce Committee mandates, and that the town could be sued.
"Laws can be interpreted," DeSisto said. "The town could win."
Others stood in defense of municipal employees who may be impacted by deeper cuts in town spending should school spending increase. "Someone could be out of a job after tonight," one resident told the crowd. "I want you all to know that."
Council members elected officials, who unanimously supported level-funding the schools. "It's not a matter of education," said Town Councilman Davison Bolster. It's about smart spending."
Town Meeting got off to a rocky start right from the Pledge of Allegience, when residents looked around the Kickemuit Middle School auditorium for a missing U.S. flag to pledge to. After organizers solved some audio problems, there was confusion over motions to vote individually on all town departments — which face a 10 percent cut across the board — and an amendment to separate only the school budget.