For nearly six hours Tuesday night, the City Council picked through the School Committee’s $160.6 million budget, which calls for a $3.8 million increase in local support. The mayor’s recommended budget that would level-fund schools kicked off a series of department budget presentations.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the school department has attempted to present a level-funded budget, but there are three main issues impacting the budget that make it difficult.
The first is a series of fire code upgrades. D’Agostino said the three-phase project was started last year at a cost of $3.5 million. He added that another $1.2 million worth of upgrades is coming up, as phase two will be completed over the summer and phase three will wrap up next year. He said the upgrades are being funded with bond money, but for the first time, the school department is responsible for the debt service.
“Prior to this [year], the city has paid for the bond debt, but now the debt service is coming out of the school budget,” he said.
He said the cost of the debt service was $900,000, and another $300,000 will be used next year.
D’Agostino said the second issue is an increase in the number of students attending charter schools, which has cost the district $1.1 million in tuition payments. He said had those students stayed in Warwick schools, it would have brought an additional $250,000 in state aid to the district, but because the state aid money follows the students, not the schools, that money goes to the charters.
“We have no control or say where they go,” he said.
D’Agostino continued, saying, “That’s a $2.5 million total cost coming out of the budget before we even open the doors to schools, so we’re already in a hole.”
D’Agostino said the third issue was the potential closure of Gorton Junior High School, which he projected to save approximately $1.6 million, however the School Committee voted keep the school open while the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee reconvenes and develops a long-range plan for the district.
“If we don’t get the needed resources, there will be staff cuts, class size increases and programs could be lost,” D’Agostino warned before saying a word about his administration staff in response to complaints regarding the number of admin staff positions and how much they make. “The administration staff is extremely hardworking and committed to the support of students and families of Warwick, and they continue to demonstrate a desire to make Warwick an outstanding city to live in.”
D’Agostino said, according to the city side personnel supplement, there are 180 to 188 administrator or supervisor positions, which is three times as many as the school department.
“We had 61 this year, with three being lost next year,” he said. “We’ve done more with less over the last five years. We’re doing the best we can with what we’re given.”
Following D’Agostino’s opening remarks, Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci presented the budget. He said a reduction in local support of approximately $6 million has been factored into the budget since fiscal year 2010, when cities and towns were allowed a one-time 5 percent below maintenance of effort reduction in local support to schools, which Warwick was the only city to take advantage of and has level funded schools ever since.
Ferrucci highlighted some of the difficult decisions the School Committee has had to make in order to present a level-funded budget each year. Such measures include a program to bring out-of-state special education tuition students back into the district for a savings of $4 million, closing four elementary schools, capturing $3.6 million in savings from the $18 million health care cost by having employees move to a 20 percent co-pay, securing 27 new buses, which did not come out of school capital funds, by transferring bus service to First Student, and cutting all substitute and stipend funding associated with professional development in next year’s budget.
“Professional development will be the first thing to be reseeded with any surplus we achieve,” he said.
Currently, Ferrucci projects a conservative $90,000 budget surplus for this year, but he said that could be in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $600,000 depending on what happens in several areas.
“We have set aside [money] for the potential for eight additional students to go out of the district for special education programs, which we won’t know until the end of the year, but if that doesn’t happen, that’s a potential $200,000 to $300,000 surplus,” he said. “We have two potential lawsuits at a cost of $50,000 each, but if we don’t have those, that’s another $100,000 surplus coming forward.”
Ferrucci added that he won’t know how much each of the 40 budget managers spends until the end of the year, but if each can save $5,000 in their budget, it could mean an additional $200,000 savings.
Before answering questions from council members, Ferrucci went through a list of initiatives not included in the fiscal year 2014 school budget, which included eight reading teachers; full-time nurses at all schools, a K-12 science supervisor; deans of discipline at each high school; a credit recovery program to assist students; a new special education behavior classroom; a student anxiety stress release program; a new roof at Warwick Vets High School; refurbishing locker rooms in all high schools; a centralized enrollment program; and a district-wide time and attendance system, among others.
Race to Top funds
Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci asked if the state and federal mandates are unfunded.
“Typically, they give us a little to get started and then walk away,” Ferrucci said, using the example of two RIDE [Rhode Island Department of Education] consultants that were brought in to help oversee the new teacher evaluation system, funded as part of Race to the Top money, but who will be leaving once that money runs out.
Ward 7 Councilman Charles “C.J.” Donovan asked Ferrucci to explain Race to the Top funding and what it was used for.
Ferrucci said the state received $75 million, $4 million of which went to Warwick, but he said there were specific requirements for how that money was to be spent.
“RIDE had a specific script for how it’s spent over the course of three to four years,” he said. “The script was very tight.”
During public comment, Darlene Netcoh, an English teacher and department head at Toll Gate High School, elaborated on the uses of Race to the Top funding.
“A lot of people think the $75 million went to cities and towns to give to students, but nothing went into the hands of school children,” she said.
Netcoh said the money went to four areas: charter schools, leadership academies, the teacher evaluation system, which she described as a “boondoggle” and tremendous waste of money that doesn’t help students, and data collection platforms.
“Five companies were awarded money to build these data collection platforms, one of which is the EESS system, where we upload evaluation information and it constantly crashes,” she said.
Donovan also asked what the former Greene Elementary School building next to Gorton is being used for.
Ferrucci explained that the building has been divided in half, with the front half being used by business affairs, accounting and payroll offices, which had to be moved from the administration building on Warwick Avenue due to mold problems. He said the other half of the building is used for a program in cooperation with the Westbay Collaborative to bring special education out-of-district tuition students in grades 7 through 12 back into the district.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson had several questions. She started with the summer school program, which generates $70,000 of revenue but costs $600,000 to run, “not including $75,000 for the principal,” Vella-Wilkinson said.
D’Agostino said the $75,000 salary for the principal of the summer school program was a typo and it should say $7,500. He then explained there are two summer school programs.
“The first is the high school summer school program, which is self-sufficient, where students that fail courses [during the year] need to pay to make up those credits,” he said, adding that principal receives a $7,500 salary. “The second is an extended school year program for students with IEPs [Individualized Education Program]. It’s a five-week program that costs $660,000. That principal gets $10,000 for setting up the program and monitoring the three sites where it runs.”
Vella-Wilkinson also asked about the school lunch program vendor, Sodexo, which is running a debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and will be unable to provide services going forward. She is concerned that 92 percent of the 63 food vendor workers are Warwick residents and would they be out of a job when going to a new vendor. She also asked if Warwick has looked at contracting with the state vendor, Aramark.
“Right now we are doing fact finding,” Ferrucci said, adding that there will be no disruption in service, as Sodexo will continue to provide food service through the end of this school year. “We have met with the state vendor, Aramark. The bargaining unit has a contract with Sodexo, not the Warwick School Department, so we’re doing fact finding right now.”
Ferrucci said over the last five years, with the elimination of a la cart snack items such as chips and cookies that kids want, revenues have dropped because they’re getting them elsewhere.
Vella-Wilkinson also asked about several positions and departments, including the transportation manager and whether his salary, currently at $85,000, was reduced when busing was handed over to First Student, which D’Agostino said it was; how many computers are in the district, which are overseen by a staff of 13 in the information technology (IT) department; and what the construction coordinator and environmental coordinators are responsible for.
3,500 school computers
Ferrucci said there are 3,500 computers in the district and explained that many aren’t up to date, as the district replaces them on an incremental basis since it doesn’t have the funding to update them all at once.
“If it still functions, we’re still using them,” he said. “We’re nowhere near being able to invest $2 million, so we do it incrementally.”
Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel, said the construction coordinator works with architects and contractors and oversees construction projects throughout the district, as well as works with the fire marshal to ensure buildings are up to code.
“If those tasks were performed by individual contractors, it would well exceed the cost of his salary,” she said.
Healey said the environmental coordinator handles health and safety issues and is responsible for OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] compliance, equipment inspection, radon testing, and safety training, including for heavy lifting, ladder safety and working with chemicals.
“That position was created at the time of the asbestos crisis in the early ’90s, so they handle asbestos issues as well,” she said. “He helps to provide a high degree of reassurance to employees and students when it comes to safety issues.”
Vella-Wilkinson also wanted to know how much substitutes are paid and what’s associated with the costs under legal services.
Healey said, as legal counsel, she’s charged to handle all legal matters, with the exception of special education, since that is very labor intensive and requires a specific skill, and insurance matters.
“The other legal services is to pay insurance deductibles and attorney fees,” she said. “The large majority of the legal services budget is due to insurance costs.”
Healey said substitutes are paid $75 per day for the first 30 days they work, and then they receive $90 a day, as an added incentive to stay in the district, up to 135 days, and anything beyond that, Healey said, state law requires that substitutes are paid step pay.
Related to Vella-Wilkinson’s question, Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur asked how substitutes are used, what kinds of leave teachers are allowed and how often are they absent.
“Substitutes are brought in for every classroom teacher because we can’t have a class of students with no teacher,” Healey said. “Typically, we don’t bring in subs for maintenance or administrative staff, with the exception of a building principal if they’re going to be out for a long period of time.”
Healey said teachers are allowed bereavement leave, family illness leave, short-term illness leave, maternity leave and a personal day.
“WISE [Warwick Independent School Employees] union members get 15 sick days per year, accumulated up to 115, and teachers get 90 sick days per year, but they don’t get temporary disability,” she said. “Teacher absences are tracked more easily. Average teacher absence is between 10 to 13 days per year throughout the district.”
Vella-Wilkinson also asked about the Connect-Ed message system, a communication system for parents, which she thought was to be used for school closures in emergency situations, and why it was used to notify parents to attend Tuesday’s council meeting and what that cost.
D’Agostino said the Connect-Ed system is used just for emergencies, but rather as a communication tool for parents that is used daily and weekly by school principals to notify parents of various meetings and school events.
“We pay one flat fee no matter how often it’s used,” he said. “Many parents enjoy receiving the messages because they don’t always get the flyers that are sent home.”
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Colantuono was also not happy about the Connect-Ed “robo call” message, which he received as a parent.
“I don’t think the robo call is productive; I think it’s counter-productive,” he said. “No one in this room has the market cornered on how much they care for their kids.”
Colantuono said he feels he’s been put in the position of being a steward for the students and schools of the district.
“This is my fifth year on the City Council and I’m surprised each year with the level of animus between the City Council and the School Committee,” he said. “We’re here to do the best [for schools], and I’m asking for respect on that issue. I would like to see a more detailed personnel supplement.”
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said in 2008, the local city allocation to schools was $118 million and for fiscal year 2014, it’s $118.6 million, an increase of $550,000 over seven years. In that same time period, he said, city taxes rose $35 million from $67.1 million in 2008 to $99.6 million in 2014.
“An increase of $35 million compared to a $500,000 increase [for schools] over the same time period; what is the impact of that while being level funded for seven years,” he asked Ferrucci.
“We’re trying to take the majority of initiatives that least impact the students, but we’re starting to hit the bottom of the well,” Ferrucci said.
Merolla continued with the cost comparisons, saying the city’s health care cost in 2004 was $11.8 million while the schools was $15.3 million. However, Merolla said schools increased from $15.3 million to $15.9 million over 11 years, while the city went from $11.8 million to $21.6 million, nearly a $10 million increase over the same time period.
“You have more employees than us,” Merolla said. “You should be commended for the 20 percent health care [co-pay] because it saved you money. [Last year], the council voted to go to a fully insured [health] plan and we were told there would be a slight increase, but yours is a self-insured plan.”
Merolla commends schools
Merolla continued, “I look at what the school department is doing with the increase you’ve been given, and I realize there’s fat in every budget, but how can we, on the municipal side of the budget, even look in the mirror when you look at what you’ve dealt with over seven years of level-funding?”
Merolla said overtime cost for the school budget was at $215,000, while fire department overtime on the city side alone was $2.8 million.
“There are items the school department could trim, but we on the City Council need to lead by example and not criticize the school department all the time,” he said. “I agree there are things to cut, but say it’s fair to increase taxes by $35 million and their [schools] allocation by half a million and not have an impact on the quality of education would be really remiss.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian said Merolla’s comments don’t take into account the loss of $12 million in state aid, through the loss of the motor vehicle tax, inventory tax and general revenue sharing, which the city had to make up in one year that the school department didn’t have to address.
Merolla also took exception to the comments made by his fellow council members regarding the use of the Connect-Ed system to notify parents of the budget meeting.
“When I joined the council, everyone that had a vested interest in education knew about this night because of [former superintendent] Robert Shapiro, who sent notices to all the PTAs, who got it to their membership, so to say with more opportunity for constituents to talk about the education their kids receive and the amount of tax dollars schools receive is bad, is the wrong message to send,” he said. “I commend you for sending the message; the more people that are here and the more voices that are heard, the better the political system works.”
With 49 students currently attending charter schools, and the potential for 64 budgeted for next year, Ladouceur asked why so many students are leaving Warwick schools.
“I worked at a charter school for two years in the Pawtucket/Central Falls area that catered to kids that needed certain programs and courses in order to graduate, so that made sense, but I don’t know why kids are leaving Warwick because it’s a good school system,” Ferrucci said.
Ladouceur also wanted to know why the Cranston school district, with 10,000 students, had a budget $23 million less than Warwick’s, which has approximately 9,600 students.
During public comment, former School Committee member Patrick Maloney said in 2008, Cranston and Warwick had the same percentage of special education students, but over the years, the percentage in Cranston has gone down by 1 percent while the percentage in Warwick has increased by 2 percent each year. He also said there are more square miles in Warwick to cover with busing.
Ladouceur also questioned why the full-time nurses line item increased by 280 percent if the district is experiencing a decline in population.
D’Agostino said the answer is because the district is getting more students that require medical services, such as diabetics are students suffering from seizures.
“It’s possible to have a diabetic child in every school, and if that’s the case, then a nurse needs to be there all day,” he said.
Janet Ward, who works in the school system and has been in the state system for 25 years, said she’s watched the changes in medical and emotional problems children have.
“The cases of kids with physical and emotional problems has grown remarkably,” she said. “The private sector has given the responsibility to public schools to address specific needs in kids. I’m amazed at what the school department has been able to do with level funding.”
Being a new member on the council, Ladouceur said this is first time around with budget hearings.
No control over school spending
“The City Council doesn’t make the budget for the school department and we have no control, apart from keeping it the way it is, lowering it or increasing it,” he said. “I have an issue with things being mailed out or said in the paper that it will be the City Council’s fault if anything is cut or changed. If that’s the case, then we should sit down and go through the budget line by line; if we’re responsible for it, I want a say in it.”
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon echoed Ladouceur’s comments.
“We, as the City Council, have three actions here; keep the mayor’s budget as presented, reduce it or increase it – that’s it,” he said. “The school budget, significant parts of it, are a swinging pendulum due to a lot of variables that are changing rapidly, one of which is health insurance, and it’s the same on both sides.”
Solomon said the council has always learned to adapt to the situation presented to it.
“We do our best with the tools presented to us to make the best accurate guess possible,” he said. “There’s a been a live discussion here this evening, and a lot of my colleagues have brought up interesting points, but we’re all on the same page to do the best for the taxpayers and provide the best public education for students.”
Ed Turner, a concerned parent, said it was embarrassing to see the animosity going back and forth between the council and schools.
“We need solutions and leadership moving forward,” he said. “The effects of level funding are the schools are in atrocious condition. You’re cutting into programs and taking away opportunities for students.”
Turner said his son has 27 students in his class at Warwick Neck as a result of consolidating Greene. He said students are receiving science instruction one day a week from a cart.
“The NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] test expects them to have science every day. How can we expect test scores to improve without the proper tools and instruction,” he asked. “PTAs pay for buses and field trips, parents are volunteering and fundraising to provide opportunities for the kids. Students don’t even have text books – I can’t help my son with his homework because all he has is a photocopy from a book.”
Turner said the best way to attract people to Warwick is to have the best schools.
“If we had the best, people would be coming in instead of moving out,” he said.
David Testa, another concerned parent, pleaded with the council to stop punishing the schools.
“A good public education system stops a city from dying. If the schools are bad, people stop coming,” he said. “Public schools have a value, and what they’ve done over a seven- to eight-year period is borderline Herculean, and that hasn’t happened on the city side. You can change it, if you want to.”
School Committee member Eugene Nadeau, who attending the council meeting with his fellow committee members, said the fault doesn’t lie with the city or the schools, but rather the state and it’s funding formula for state aid to cities and towns.
“Seven hundred and eighty million dollars was given to schools [in the state], $86 million of which went to charters,” he said. “Warwick is getting $35 million and that’s for the next seven years. [Gordon] Fox and [Teresa] Paiva-Weed favored their own cities and constituents; they never would have agreed to it if they didn’t get the most.”
Nadeau said Pawtucket received $70 million and Woonsocket received $48 million.
“Why do we, in Warwick, have to give over $20 million to other cities and towns,” he asked. “If we got an additional $15 million to $20 million, we wouldn’t be there tonight.”
Council action on the school budget and budgets of other departments is not expected until after the hearings have been completed.