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JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The town of Johnston is taking over its school district, which is on track to end its second straight fiscal year in the red, according to the mayor’s office.

After coming out of the previous fiscal year with a $955,000 deficit, Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. said the district is expected to end the current fiscal year with a multi-million-dollar deficit.

Polisena described the back-to-back shortfalls as “unacceptable.”

“I am also gravely concerned the department will run another deficit by the end of the upcoming 2024 fiscal year as well, which would amount to three consecutive deficits,” Polisena added. “Even though the department exists as a separate entity from the town, we all have an obligation to the taxpayers.”

“While the town recognizes the department faces unprecedented mandates from the state, I
believe we are at a critical point where the town needs to intervene and take over the
department before the problem becomes irreversible,” he continued.

The state mandates Polisena is referring to involves out of district tuition for students. He says the town pays $17,000 per student to go to schools in other districts.

More than 150 Johnston school-aged children and teens go to school out of district costing the town $2.8 million, according to the mayor.

Polisena said the decision was made in conjunction with the Johnston Town Council and School Committee. Town oversight of the district will officially begin next fiscal year.

The town will loan the district money to pay off its debts. Polisena said the town council has also committed an additional $2.15 million for the school department.

The allocation to the schools is the largest in the town’s history, according to the mayor.

“This historic investment in schools needs to be allocated prudently,” Polisena said. “I am willing to provide the necessary funding to the school department, but in exchange for this historic increase in aid, the town needs oversight.”

“Throughout this process I also hope to highlight the burdensome, state-mandated, out-of-district costs that not only plague Johnston, but many other municipalities,” he added. “Not if, but when the town is able to bring the department back to fiscal solvency, I hope this oversight serves as a model for other municipalities throughout the state that are facing similar issues.”

Polisena said the town has hired PFM Consulting Group to perform a financial and operational audit of the school department. The Philadelphia-based group will then give recommendations on how to get the district’s finances back on track.

Johnston voters approved a $215 million bond last year to repair and rebuild the town’s schools. The town also received an $85 million bond last fall to put toward school improvements.

Polisena said the town’s oversight of the district will be “…made with the new schools in mind.”

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