Chief negotiator for the Warwick School Department, Rosemary Healey, doesn’t expect the department and the Warwick Teachers Union to have a contract by the time school starts on Aug. 31.
“Let’s be realistic,” she said of contract negations in an interview Friday, “we haven’t settled contracts on a timely basis.”
Without going into specifics, Healey said there are a number of issues that separate the two sides. “I hope we can work through them all,” she added.
The school department has brought a lawsuit against the city over $6.2 million, which the department contends it is owed as part of the city maintenance of effort to schools.
Healey said she isn’t looking at the suit as a means of leveraging union concessions.
Citing a directive from Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, the committee called on the court last month to direct the mayor and city council to restore city school funding to the level of 2009. That would be an additional $6.2 million above the $117.7 million the city allocated to school funding in this year’s budget. In addition, the mayor and council set aside $875,000 in the city budget to ensure a school sports program. Those funds are to be transferred to schools later in the year.
In its court actions, the committee requests the additional $6.2 million and that the $875,000 be turned over immediately to schools. Superior Court is scheduled to hear the complaints on Aug. 19.
Yesterday Mayor Scott Avedisian took issue with the $117.7 million as what the city gives schools. In addition, he said, the city is paying principal and interest amounting to $4.5 million annually on school bonds, $200,000 for school resource officers and $12,000 for truancy court.
City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said the city is in the process of preparing a response to the complaints that should be filed this week.
A court decision that the city had the authority to level fund schools this year would seemingly strengthen committee efforts to gain teacher concessions such as lower wage increases and hiking the current $11-a-week health insurance co-payment. School employees other than teachers are now at 20 percent co-pay.
But that’s not the strategy of the suit, says Healey.
“We genuinely believe, to continue to provide the services, that we need that money,” she said. Healey cites how people chose to live in Warwick because of the school system and that quality schools play an important role in property values.
“That’s the caliber of education we’re talking about…what would happen to this city if the quality of education were to deteriorate?”
In drafting the budget, schools did not take into consideration an increase in teacher health insurance co-payments or raises. And unless the committee changes the practice of continuing the terms of the current contract until a new one is in place, cost projections are on target.
There’s more to Healey’s argument.
She said to level-fund schools is “unrealistic and unfair to the students of this city.”
She maintains that schools have made cuts and done layoffs while the city side of the budget has grown and municipal employees have received wage increases. This is an issue of fairness.
“I don’t see the same concessions on the city side of the ledger,” she said. “They give pay raises to everybody.”
Such action, she said, makes it difficult to ask for concessions from teachers and school employees.
“The first thing they say is, ‘What about them [city workers]?’” she said.
Schools have cut teacher positions from 1,200 in 2002 to 1,030 through layoffs and attrition.
Healey argues teachers, unlike many city employees, must have college degrees and are required to maintain licenses and certification at their own expense.
“They are highly trained people with specific training and it costs a lot of money,” she said. “We’ve taken real cuts, lost jobs.”
Healey also points out that some schools have been closed and more buildings, possibly a junior high school, will be looked at for consolidation.
“Don’t tell us we’ve been financially irresponsible,” she said of the council and mayor.
Should the court find in favor of the city, Healey says the community will face hard choices.
“What would happen to this city and the quality of education,” she asks.
Healey says the debate over school financing has become personal.
“If we’re having a serious intellectual discussion, then I have no problem with them [mayor and council]. The vitriol, the name calling, the personal attacks, that’s what gets us no where as a community,” she said.
Why, then, bring suit against the city? And if court action is considered necessary, why not inform the mayor and council it is contemplated, rather than having them learn of the action, which apparently was taken in executive session with no vote reported in public session, by e-mail from the city solicitor?
Healey says the city was informed and that the action was taken appropriately.
“As a lawyer,” Healey said, “litigation is the last way to go and in this case we had no choice. This was a decision about what’s right for the city, for the city and the school department and the students.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian took issue with Healey’s comments.
“While I am disappointed that Ms. Healey wants to turn this into a personal issue, I will stay focused on the bigger picture and not respond to opinionated allegations. I recommended a responsible budget for the School Department to the City Council and the City Council adopted a School Department budget they deemed legally and operationally sufficient. We look forward to having an ability to make our presentation in court,” Avedisian said in an e-mail yesterday.
Avedisian said city costs for schools could conceivably jump to almost $145 million next year depending on the outcome of the lawsuit and other actions. To arrive at that amount, the mayor totals the $6.2 million of the lawsuit; $9.25 million schools want to implement fire code upgrades; $6.2 million more in teacher pension contributions plus the $4.5 million in bond costs and other expenses now being picked up by the city.