When the School Committee presents its $160.6 million budget to the City Council tonight at the first of three consecutive city budget hearings, school administrators will argue every penny is needed to effectively run the system of 9,500 students.
That may be the case, but Mayor Scott Avedisian thinks it can be done for less, and so do members of the council. Avedisian’s budget calls for a $156.7 million school budget with level funding of schools at $118.6 million in city funds. That is $3.8 million less than what schools are asking for.
“The budget is the budget,” Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said Friday, “everything we’ve asked for, we believe we need.”
According to reports from City Council members, the School Department used its “connect-ed” system to notify parents to turn out for tonight’s budget hearing to show support for the budget request.
“That costs money,” City Council President Donna Travis said about the notification system used to notify parents of school closures, “I think that’s a waste.”
She said she planned to ask D’Agostino what the department spent in its effort to rally budget support.
D’Agostino expects he and committee chair Bethany Furtado will make opening statements before the school business affairs director Anthony Ferrucci outlines the request tonight. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at City Council chambers.
And, if the council and mayor fail to come up with the full school budget?
“That’s when we’ll have to sit down and look at areas that can be reduced,” said D’Agostino.
“I’m hopeful we’ll get something more,” said committee member Jennifer Ahearn.
Ahearn isn’t simply crossing her fingers. In anticipation of cuts, Ahearn has asked the administration to return with areas where reductions could be made. She also feels, as does member Eugene Nadeau, that the city isn’t getting a “fair share” of state funds.
Ahearn said the city’s legislative delegation, council and the mayor should work together to get more state funding.
Nadeau is conflicted. On one hand, he argues that taxes continue to go up.
“I can’t remember a time when taxes didn’t increase,” he said.
Nonetheless, the changes he advocates for schools would increase expenditures.
Nadeau opposed closing Gorton Junior High School, a measure that would have saved $1.1 million in operating expenses. He favors replacing junior high schools with middle schools with grades 6 through 8. That would open classrooms at the elementary level, which he thinks the city needs for a full-day kindergarten. The estimated additional cost of an all-day kindergarten is about $3 million.
“I believe the time has come for a full-day kindergarten,” he said.
Nadeau doesn’t have an answer to funding it.
“Our responsibility is to wisely use our money and that’s why we were elected,” he said. “The city is giving $118 million and that’s a pretty large chunk of money.”
His argument is that state funding, now at $35 million, should be greater. He thinks state funding should be another $20 million, based on the level of state support for Providence and other districts.
“This is not fair to the [Warwick] taxpayers,” he said.
But banking on added state support is not realistic and Nadeau knows that. He also doesn’t see schools making cuts in its contracts, although that may be requested of the unions.
Where does that leave the department?
“I hate to see cuts to the arts and music,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, those programs as well as sports have to be on the table. “We have to submit a balanced budget by the end of June.”
Nadeau was critical of what he sees as “animosity” toward the School Committee. Last week, City Council President Donna Travis described herself as “livid” with the department, citing the condition in which the department left Potowomut School when it turned the building back to the city. After closing, the school was used for the storage of books, supplies and equipment, a lot of which was never removed. The city is soliciting bids for demolition of the building so as to build a fire station on the property.
D’Agostino said the city took possession of the building before the department had the chance to clean it out.
“Whatever is left; it’s not a major thing,” he said. “Tell us what they want,” he said of the city, “and we’ll certainly do it.”
D’Agostino identified charter schools and the debt costs of bonding for fire code improvements as adding about $2 million to the school budget. He said Warwick is paying for 101 students in charter schools. In addition, he said, Warwick is seeing a cut in state funds because of charter schools. He put bonding costs at an additional $800,000 to $900,000.
The meeting will start at 6 p.m. tonight at City Hall.