With the Warwick School Committee facing a structural deficit, estimated as high as $6 million as the fiscal 2012 budget begins on July 1, the proverbial shoe may soon drop that eliminates any current management rights schools have to impose options needed to balance the budget.
If that happens, an expensive, drawn out legal battle may be the only option schools have, or a massive supplemental tax increase is a possibility in the city of Warwick.
According to the Rhode Island Tea Party, organized labor is fiercely lobbying the Senate for passage of mandatory binding arbitration on fiscal matters if there is an impasse in teacher contract negotiations. They also are seeking a new law that would freeze terms of previous contracts indefinitely, thereby making it almost impossible for school committees to enact budget reduction concessions.
Word on the street is that the unions are seeking a quid-pro-quo for agreeing to give up the long cherished longevity pay. Shouldn’t these decisions be based on the ability of the taxpayers to support spending programs that are necessary to run government programs efficiently and not horse trading at the State House?
Beginning about seven years ago Warwick schools have incrementally reduced positions and closed schools to cut millions of dollars from the budget. Even though last year the school budget was cut 5 percent by city leaders and with the loss of millions more in state aid, schools were able to balance the budget as a result of these cumulative actions.
With spending now below 2008 levels and with the mayor and City Council not allocating any new local tax dollars to support schools for four out of the last five years, schools will be hard-pressed to balance the budget using the same incremental methods of the past.
If it was not for the courageous decisions of past and present school leaders, school spending would be on track with city spending – out of control, reaching all-time new levels and be responsible for 100 percent of the local car and property tax increase.
However, that doesn’t mean that schools can rest on their laurels. Additional difficult decisions remain in order to continue downsizing and further reducing personnel costs, which consumes over 87 percent of the budget.
Private industry workers have had to accept concessions in the current economic environment. Organized labor should not be immune to similar cuts. Yet that is exactly what the unions are trying to do by stepping up efforts to put new laws in place to stop the loss of cherished benefits that taxpayers can no longer afford.
With the Warwick teachers’ contract expiring in August, the school committee has the legal precedent established in East Providence a few years ago to impose unilateral changes to balance the budget if the teacher union will not agree to contractual cuts.
Based on the Warwick Teachers Union’s past track record and my own experience, I am not optimistic they will accept cuts without their own horse trading and another long drawn out process and work-to-rule that will hurt Warwick children. Their answer to the budget woes will be to raise new taxes.
Mandatory binding arbitration and perpetual contracts will strip the committee of the leverage needed to negotiate a realistic contract that can be funded by Warwick taxpayers.
Since I can’t make it anymore clear how important it is for Warwick taxpayers to assist in stopping these proposals, with the permission of the RI Tea Party, for the rest of the column I quote them:
“Imagine that you own your own business and it's facing bankruptcy. What steps would you take to try and turn your business around? Would you continue to spend your money in the same manner as before? No. You would look to cut expenses to the bone, try and renegotiate contracts with vendors so they would receive something instead of nothing and you certainly wouldn't add to any outstanding debt that would only push you further into bankruptcy.
"Well, the lawmakers of Rhode Island don't see it like that. They see the taxpayer as human ATMs with continuous overdraft protection!
"They proposed bills that would take control away from our locally elected officials to make the difficult choices of cutting expenses, renegotiating contracts with public employees, and addressing the unfunded public employee benefit debt to a manageable level.
"There is NO compromise that any bill could provide that makes binding arbitration and perpetual contracts taxpayer or student friendly!
"Contact them now! This is precisely the time that all sorts of Bad Bills get pushed through before the budget is finalized. Tell them not to vote on any bill that involves binding arbitration and perpetual contracts!”
Robert Cushman (Cushmanr@cox.net) is a former Warwick City Councilman and former Warwick School Committee Chairman.