Tempers flare over school budget battle

A joint meeting between the North Smithfield Town Council and School Committee aimed at resolving their heated dispute over school funding resulted in shouting and a walkout.

Then at the end of the meeting there was some progress, after the fireworks were over.

The town council approved a transfer of money to the school department to help with a deficit that has threatened sports, other activities, and even graduation.

But the meeting got off to a rough start. School Committee Chairman Robert Lafleur was miffed that the town council met for an hour behind closed doors first and then wanted to proceed with a presentation, and not meet privately together to talk.

"You're a disgrace. You're a disgrace," Lafleur shouted at Town Council President John Flaherty. "You're a disgrace because you won't do your fiduciary responsibility."

Lafleur and the rest of the school committee members, along with much of the crowd, then walked out of the joint meeting on fixing a school budget shortfall of nearly a half-million dollars.

Flaherty responded, telling NBC 10, "I understand this is politics. I wish it didn't happen that way and we could work more closely together."

Lafleur told NBC 10 the town council is trying "to make it look like we're the bad guys in this. We're not the bad guys."

He claims the town council broke its promise by not releasing $240,000 in a contingency fund.

The school department says it's going over budget mostly because of unexpected special education costs.

The town council has said it will give more money, but wants to see the school department books first.

Parents and students, meanwhile, have been left in the lurch.

High school senior Rachel Manzi said, "It's kind of ridiculous to see the students step up as adults and the adults stepping down as children. I don't understand how things are going to get done if they don't get together and compromise."

Questioned about sitting down together, Lafleur said, "We've attempted three or four times. I've sent four emails indicating a request to meet in a joint session and also privately, with our legal counsel, refused by both."

And Flaherty, on why they can't see eye-to-eye, said, "Because what we're trying to do, this is the key, we're really trying to keep this from happening every two to three years. It's a recurrence. It divides the community."

In the end, with the school committee gone, the town council did vote to hand over the $240,000, covering about half the deficit, in hopes the school committee will come to the table to hash out a long-term deal.