Superior Court Associate Justice Allen Rubine gave the city and the School Committee until Sept. 14 to file briefs that could form the basis of his decision whether to concur with the committee’s argument that it is due an additional $6.2 million in city funding.
Both parties met in conference with the judge Friday morning.
School human service director Rosemary Healey, who is an attorney and serves as counsel to the committee, brought the complaint against the city on behalf of the committee. Anthony Ferrucci, school finance officer, accompanied her. City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero represented the city. John Harrington, solicitor to the City Council, which was also named in the suit, joined him. Harrington said the parties met for about 45 minutes with Judge Rubine.
He said the parties are to file the facts in the case such as the level of school funding provided by the city, previous school budgets and the like so as to narrow down the points of disagreement. Harrington said Judge Rubine left open whether he would issue a ruling on the basis of those briefs, or ask for oral arguments in court.
Either way, Harrington believes the city has two shots on which to argue its premise that the mayor and council met the maintenance of effort when they level funded schools at $117.7 million for the current fiscal year.
Schools raised the issue of maintenance of effort during budget hearings, contending that a letter issued by Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, on Feb. 17 requires the city to restore school funding to 2009 levels when the city allocated more than $124 million. By legislative action, the city was permitted to reduce funding by 5 percent to $117.7 million.
In its response to the committee’s complaint, the city and council deny that Gist’s opinion is binding on the city and further argue that the law does not require funding at the 2009 level. This is also the opinion of House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed, as presented in a letter during budget deliberations.
But, should Judge Rubine find otherwise, Ruggiero said the city is preparing to argue the maintenance of effort was more than sufficiently met, based on enrollment.
“We did the math at the time of the budget,” said Ruggiero. He said calculations found that per student level of city funding in 2009 is actually less than it has been in successive budget years, even though the dollar amount is more. That is a reflection of the city’s declining school enrollment.
“The level of funding still satisfies [the maintenance of effort],” he said. In fact, Ruggiero said on the basis of enrollment, the city exceeded legislative requirements.
The school committee based its budget on the $124 million in city funding and, although the fiscal year started as of July 1, has still not approved a budget on the actual amount. It also has not reached an agreement with the Warwick Teachers Union whose contract expires on Aug. 31, the first day of school. Teachers are expected to continue working under the terms of the current contract, which means any concessions gained in a new agreement, such as an increased health care insurance co-payment, won’t start accruing until that time. The department’s ability to balance its budget becomes progressively more difficult the longer it waits to win concessions if, in fact, it does.
On the other hand, should schools win the maintenance of level argument, the city would be faced with raising an additional $6.2 million. The city could turn to its undesignated reserves or rainy day fund that would virtually be wiped out, or issue a supplemental tax bill.
No matter Rubine’s ruling, either schools or the city will face some tough choices.