With the Thanksgiving holiday just passing by, now may be the time to consider giving thanks to any unlikely Warwick institution – the school department.
The unprecedented great recession has resulted in substantial revenue cuts from not only the federal government but also crippling cuts from the state government to city and school budgets across the state.
Only through the cooperative leadership of past and present superintendents, school committee members, Warwick teacher union presidents, and Warwick Independent School Employee (WISE) union presidents has the school department managed to continue to educate Warwick’s children competently while operating in a fiscally prudent manner.
In other words, they’re doing more with less.
Overall school spending is below 2008 levels and, with the exception of a onetime infusion of federal stimulus dollars in 2010, schools have been level funded by the city three of the last four years. On top of all that, for the first time ever, Warwick schools are now responsible for budgeting funds to pay for infrastructure repairs to school facilities.
This year, Warwick’s schools have managed to balance their budget by cutting millions in personnel costs. Our school teachers stepped up to the plate without a contract and agreed to pay a 20 percent co-pay on the premiums of their health care costs, the largest percentage of any bargaining unit in the city. They also agreed to a wage freeze for the year. WISE union employees and administrators have been paying the 20 percent co-pay for about a year.
Now with the state passing pension reform legislation, the cost to fund teacher pensions will also reduce budgetary expenditures by millions.
Warwick schools have handled the loss of revenue better than the city mainly because they were proactive in handling the problem years ago. They foresaw their financial problems. So they downsized departments. They cut staffing. And they closed schools.
Surely closing four elementary schools was painful, not to mention unpopular, but it was the right decision.
And with the decline in enrollment ongoing, schools shouldn’t expect to see increases in the budget for many more years. Thankfully they are planning for that already by taking practical steps to further consolidate facilities now at the secondary level. The school’s Long Term Facilities Planning Committee will likely recommend closing two junior high schools and/or a high school possibly by early next year.
Despite all these facts, the Warwick School Department has not received much, if any credit from city leaders for their fiscal responsibility. Over the continuous budget process last spring one would have thought that school spending was out of control.
On the contrary, today, school spending consumes 55 percent of the budget and is declining, while city spending at 45 percent of the budget is at an all-time high and increasing each year. Conversely, city spending has accounted for 100 percent of the property tax increases over the last two years, including all revenue collected from the controversial new car tax assessed on motor vehicle owners in July.
Now, increasingly over the past few months at City Council meetings it has been commonplace for city administrators, the Finance Committee chairman and municipal employees to cast unwarranted dispersions at the school department by criticizing cost of living increases teachers have received over the last seven years that are far less than what their counterparts in the city received.
Keep in mind the city provides lifetime health care benefits to its employees and the schools do not – it’s one reason why retirement health care unfunded liabilities on the city side is four times greater than on the school side. Past school committees should be congratulated for not giving in to those demands instead of criticized for giving active employees deserved raises.
Employee bashing on either side of the budgets is unfortunate but by casting dispersions on schools, the tactic may be the simplest means for some city leaders to hide their own culpability in the budget crisis facing the city today.
The perception in City Hall is so far off from the truth that it insults and diminishes the difficult decisions made by school administration, school committee members and the teacher and WISE unions.
The bottom line is that if city leaders took the same proactive approach to the economic conditions facing the city as the schools, Warwick taxpayers wouldn’t be facing the near maximum tax increases year after year where all new revenue is allocated to the city budget not schools.
Robert Cushman (email@example.com) is a former Warwick City Councilman and School Committee Chairman.