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Schools lose argument over base for city funds

Warwick schools won’t be getting an additional $6.2 million under a court ruling issued Thursday, not that the city has the money for such an appropriation or the schools need it to balance their budget.

That didn’t look to be the case early last summer when the department faced a $6.2 million shortfall based on a budget of $160.6 million. A series of factors, including an agreement with the Warwick Teachers Union to implement a 20 percent health care co-payment, although schools and the union have still not reached a contract; a carry over surplus from the prior year; and an agreement with the Warwick Independent School Employees enabling schools to privatize bus services for special needs students served to reduce the school budget to the $157.8 million approved last week.

Although schools had balanced revenues and expenses, the department chose to continue the suit on the principle that the city had failed to meet its maintenance of effort as defined in a February 2011 memo from Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education. The maintenance of effort requires the city to appropriate no less than it did in the prior year to schools. At issue was the base year for Gist’s opinion – she used 2009 – and whether the city could allocate 95 percent of that amount as enabled by the legislature for Fiscal Year 2011. The schools contended the maintenance of effort was $123.9 million. The city said the minimum was $117.7 million, although it chose to appropriate more at $118.6 million. To bolster its argument, the city offered a letter in support from Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. Also the city argued it could reduce funding because of a drop of enrollment.

In his opinion, Superior Court Justice Allen P. Rubine found that the city had not violated the maintenance of effort provision and that “Commissioner Gist is clearly erroneous as a matter of law.”

In finding with the city, Rubine goes on to say, “The Court understands and respects the opinion of the Commissioner and the rationale upon which her interpretation relies. That rationale assumes that the General Assembly’s amendment was meant to temporarily reduce the funding obligation only for two years whereas using the 2011 appropriation as a base year would have the effect of perpetuating the reduction beyond 2011, contrary to her belief as to the legislature’s intent.”

In his opinion he writes, “This Court believes, therefore, that the City’s Fiscal Year 2012 obligation to the public schools must be at a minimum of $117,769,732. In other words, the City’s current allocation of $118,644,629 is adequate to comply with its maintenance of effort obligations under state law.”

Rubine found in favor of the school’s argument that the city could not “hold back” the $875,000 it had allocated specifically to ensure athletics programs, which it had threatened to cut from its budget.

Rubine said the intended purpose of the “hold-back” has no bearing and agreed with schools “that such a restricted hold-back unlawfully restricts the use of an allocation to the School Committee, which, under state law has the exclusive authority to care, control, and manage the public school interests, and to direct the expenditure of such funds for any lawful purpose within their authority.”

“While we always thought that we had a strong case and that we would prevail, it is now time to work on rebuilding a good relationship with the school committee,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in an e-mail.


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