In marked contrast to prior years, Mayor Scott Avedisian hasn’t come out swinging against the school budget, although the School Committee has asked for another $4.2 million in city spending.
Rather than the rhetoric, the mayor has focused on what’s driving much of the increase – the committee’s plan to use operating funds for fire code improvements.
In order to comply with the stricter fire codes implemented following The Station nightclub fire nine years ago, the school department will need to replace doors and lower windows in elementary schools, among other revisions, in virtually every building at a projected cost of $10 million. The committee has a plan to make these revisions over a three-year period, spending $3.3 million every year to bring about eight schools into compliance.
The issue is: schools only have enough in bond funds to complete one year of improvements. In addition, in order to be ready for the next year of improvements – all of which must be done during the summer months – the department must finalize contracts prior to budget approval in June. Therefore, to ensure the 2013 program is on track, funds need to be included in the upcoming budget for the following year.
As the mayor has repeatedly expressed his reluctance to increase city indebtedness with additional bonding, schools looked to operating funds for the work. In addition, schools looked at an increase in city funding as a means of hiking the city’s maintenance of effort. This would be a means of increasing the taxpayers’ share of the school budget in years to come.
This picture justifiably concerns the mayor. There are a number of variables at play.
No one will argue that our schools must be safe, however, legislators are looking to revise fire codes for small businesses and might there be efforts to also lift some of the demands on municipalities? Also, with Warwick school enrollment on a steady decline, what schools face closing? Should operating funds be used for fire code improvements in place of bonds? And should taxpayers be footing a larger portion of the school budget, and an increased amount, when enrollments are dropping?
Surely there will be points of view on all of these issues. This could be the quiet before the storm.