Before approving the superintendent’s recommended $159.7 million budget for fiscal year 2015 by a 4-1 vote, the Warwick School Committee made several amendments to the budget, increasing the request by an approximate $900,000.
The superintendent’s recommended budget initially called for $1.1 million from the city, but with the added amendments, the request increases to an approximate $2 million.
Additions to the budget included: $230,000 increase to David LaPlante’s buildings and grounds budget in the area of capital improvements; $55,000 increase to Dr. Anne Siesel’s curriculum budget in the area of music and art supplies and equipment; $250,000 increase for the hiring of a Human Resources (HR) director and necessary support staff; and the addition of three math coaches at the secondary level for an approximate $300,000 to $400,000, to cover salary and benefits for each coach, which is a full-time position.
The first amendment to the budget request was the $230,000 increase to the buildings’ budget, which came at the request of Eugene Nadeau and Karen Bachus.
“When the budget was prepared and presented, did you both agree the budget for David LaPlante would be at $40,000 for next year?” Nadeau asked Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci and Superintendent Richard D’Agostino. “How is it possible to run repairs for 24 schools for a year on $40,000?”
Ferrucci explained that the buildings and grounds budget is $4 million, and that the $40,000 Nadeau was referring to is for capital improvements, such as an emergency replacement of a boiler.
“The strategy is to put $40,000 aside for an emergency replacement of something like a boiler, but the hope is we don’t have to spend it and can achieve a surplus,” Ferrucci said.
Nadeau wasn’t satisfied.
“$40,000 is an unrealistic figure and it puts the schools in jeopardy,” he said.
Nadeau wished to increase the capital improvements line item by $60,000, for a total of $100,000, but Bachus thought it should be more.
“I have concerns with the $40,000 for capital expenses,” she said. “It should be much more, at least $10,000 per building.”
Bachus made a motion to increase the line item by $230,000, bringing the total for capital improvements to $270,000, which passed 3-2, with Jennifer Ahearn and Terri Medeiros dissenting, after Nadeau withdrew his initial motion and supported Bachus.
“I completely understand the buildings are in disrepair and need work, but I don’t know how much we’ll get out of that [$270,000] for the buildings,” Ahearn said.
Nadeau’s motion to restore $55,000 for music and art supplies and equipment, which had initially been cut from Siesel’s budget request by Ferrucci and D’Agostino before the budget was presented to the School Committee, passed by a 3-2 vote, with Medeiros and School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado dissenting.
“There’s no reduction in the budget to sports, even though we’re reducing arts and music, which we reduced last year?” Nadeau asked. “Those areas have hundreds of students involved.”
In regards to the HR director position, Bachus said it’s something that has been discussed in the past but the committee has yet to act on.
“We talked about hiring an HR professional so our attorney can focus on her job and not do double duty, and for some reason that didn’t make it in [last year],” she said, referring to Rosemary Healy, who has served as legal counsel and director of human resources for the school department for the past 10 years.
The matter was discussed further, as the committee debated whether the HR director position was more important or more needed than an Information Technology (IT) director position, which the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) recommended if the district is to move forward technologically.
“I feel the HR director is as important, if not more so than the IT person. I think we can forgo the IT person,” Bachus said.
“IT is a very important part of the district moving forward,” he said, adding that the school department was advised by RIDE that it needs an IT director to oversee technology throughout the district.
“I would like to see an HR director added, and if we have to lay someone off that’s non-union, then that’s what we have to do,” Bachus said.
Ahearn also disagreed.
“I respectfully disagree. We do need an IT professional in the district. The staff said they can’t keep up with everything that’s coming down the pike,” she said. “But I do agree that we need support in human resources, too.”
Furtado agreed both positions are needed.
“I applaud the thinking of Ms. Ahearn and Ms. Bachus, and I agree we should have both [positions],” she said. “We will have to cut somewhere else if we add the positions in.”
However, no such cuts were recommended or approved.
“As much as I respect Rosemary and the bundle of work she’s had to deal with, I think we need to focus on technology and what’s coming down the road,” Medeiros said.
Nadeau said it was unfair that Healy has had to handle two jobs.
Argument for HR director
“We agreed to lessen the workload last year,” he said. “She’s handling legal counsel and human resources, and there can be a conflict of interest, and she shouldn’t be put in that position.”
Healy was upset at the mention of a conflict of interest and immediately defended herself.
“I take gross offense when somebody accuses me that I have a conflict of interest,” she said angrily. “I uphold an oath as an attorney; I’m not violating the code I subscribe to.”
D’Agostino said the decision was made to go with an IT director to move the whole district forward, and as a result cuts were made to budget managers’ requests, such as the $55,000 in music and art supplies and equipment.
Feeling that both the IT and HR positions are important, Bachus recommended adding $250,000 into the budget to hire an HR director and the necessary support staff to aid Healy, which was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Medeiros and Furtado dissenting.
Ahearn said she was concerned to see cuts of $100,000 in substitutes for professional development, and $700,000 in professional development for IT hardware and software recommended.
“I see a good job done by management, although I don’t see a lot of professional development for staff to get to the next level, which will be needed next year with Common Core,” she said. “We need to be training our staff appropriately.”
Administrators shot back at Ahearn’s assertion that professional development was lacking.
“We’ve had teachers out of class 18 and 19 days, so it’s puzzling to me that you think professional development isn’t happening,” Healy said. “It’s going on every single day.”
D’Agostino said the department has been doing so much professional development during the day this year that it is running out of substitutes to cover classrooms while teachers are out attending workshops. He also said he’s been getting complaints from parents that teachers are out of the classroom for as many as 15 days.
“Teachers have had more professional development this year than I can ever remember,” said Robert Bushell, director of elementary education. “We’ve had them out so often, it’s becoming a problem.”
Request for math coaches
Frustrated that money was not included in the budget to, as Ahearn put it, elevate the math and science programs to a higher level, areas where she feels the district is still struggling, she requested the addition of three math coaches at the secondary level, which was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Medeiros dissenting.
Healy cautioned that math coaches would be expensive.
“We have to pay them more than teachers, so their salary would be in the high 80,000s,” she said. “We would be looking for people that have a lot of experience because we would be hiring them to teach how to teach.”
Finally, a motion was made to approve the budget as amended, with an approximate $900,000 increase, which passed by a 4-1 vote, with Medeiros dissenting.
Ferrucci warned the committee that they could add as much money as they wanted to the budget, but if the school department doesn’t get it from the city; the committee would have to revisit the budget and make cuts, which could be as much as $2 million.
In other committee action, the bid award for the re-roofing of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School at an estimated cost of $2,209,000 was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Ahearn dissenting.
The award was up for bid the week prior to last Wednesday’s meeting but was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with Medeiros and Furtado voting in favor of approving the bid.
Bachus said she had questions and concerns at the last meeting but after doing research and talking to people, she learned how bad the current roof is and became concerned because parts of it are not useable.
“Some of my colleagues want to battle the city over this issue; but it’s time to develop a cooperative relationship with the city. The buildings belong to the taxpayers,” she said. “When Potowomut was closed, items were left there that got leaked on because the roof wasn’t repaired, mold set in and the building had to be razed – we’re not doing that with Vets. I hope my colleagues support this.” [The city razed the school in order to build a fire station on the site.]
Ahearn, who voted against awarding the bid last time because she would rather see the money spent on educational programs for students than on repairing buildings, didn’t change her mind the second time around.
“I still feel the $1.7 million [FY 2014 budget surplus] could reseed some items on the list for next year, like $700,000 for technology, and we could put it toward things students can use and take the roof money out of the bond,” she said, referring to Ferrucci’s projected current year surplus, which had been earmarked for the Vets roof project before the bid award was defeated.
Put safety first
Medeiros said safety should be the first priority.
“As an owner of a business that deals with children, before I take care of supplies or playground equipment, the first priority is the safety of the building,” she said. “There should be no delay in approving this.”
Nadeau, the third member to vote against awarding the bid at the last meeting, is upset that the school department is responsible for the principal and interest payments on bond money approved by the voters and released by the city. He said no other school district in the state is responsible for such payments, and he feels the measure was forced upon schools when the city refused to release the bonds unless the school department agreed to pay the principal and interest.
“The city needs to hear our pleas,” he said.
Furtado said she’s supported awarding the roof bid from the start but disagreed with Nadeau’s assessment.
“The statement that this was forced on us is grossly inaccurate. The school department would have incurred fees of tens of thousands of dollars per building per day if we didn’t take action with the fire code [upgrades] work,” she said. “I want to spend as much money as we can for educational purposes for students, and we could have done that if we consolidated but we did not and we have not.”
Referencing the danger that if the Vets roof isn’t replaced, the school could lose accreditation, Furtado said, “I’m not prepared to tell parents or staff that the school building or a diploma is not accepted because it isn’t accredited. I won’t do that.”