To the Editor:
After having attended another School Department budget presentation to the City Council, it’s become increasingly clear to me that our elected representatives are not keen on supporting our school system at a level that would make it one that would draw new families to our city. One council member pointed out that “technically” they have not level funded schools because last year they appropriated $400,000 more than their original request – a victory for semantics, I guess since the previous six years saw level funding.
Another expressed his embarrassment at some of the things that the schools have been forced to do because of that level funding. He is correct, to which I’d like to add some further embarrassments. 1) Warwick was the only municipality to fully cut their Maintenance of Effort (MOE) by 5 percent in 2009 when the General Assembly allowed cities and towns to do so; 2) Warwick was the only municipality to maintain their original MOE cut; 3) In 2009 Warwick became the only municipality to force (yes, force) their schools to pay principal and interest on bond monies used for capital improvements to the buildings (the Pilgrim roof, fire code mandates, and the Warwick Vets roof).
What started as a $190,000 line item for the Pilgrim roof has now ballooned to $1.1 million and will only increase once the final stages of fire code upgrades are done at Aldrich and Gorton Junior Highs. These are 10- and 20-year payments so when our students lag further behind in technology and when more programs and services are cut, I’d suggest that parents aim their displeasure at the root cause – their council members and the mayor – because the buildings are owned by the city, not the School Department.
In fact, in 2006, voters approved a $25 million bond issue for capital improvements for our schools and the mayor then proceeded to not allow any of that money to be used (the Pilgrim roof in 2009 was the first use of those funds, I believe). What’s upsetting is that the General Assembly legislation that gave Warwick the borrowing authority states “all bonds … shall be obligatory on the city in the same manner and to the same extent as to other debts lawfully contracted by it…” It also states that the city “shall annually appropriate a sum sufficient to pay the principal and interest…” Sounds pretty clear to me as to who is supposed to pay. $1.1 million dollars can buy a lot of technology and programming. Another member asked questions of the administration on behalf of his constituents that, quite frankly, had little relevance to the presentation and could have been dealt with by a simple phone call or email to the administration. The council president leveled her annual charge that she believes the school administration is “top heavy” but, evidently, has not taken the time or energy over the years to investigate that belief to see if it’s actually true. It wouldn’t be that difficult to ascertain, but why do that when you can just level the charge?
I have a growing fear that many on the council and the mayor want to see an appointed School Board, a disastrous idea in my view for many reasons. Councilwoman Vella-Wilkinson’s ad hoc subcommittee to study the Charter Review Commission’s recommendations of term limits and appointing a school board has recently gotten a lot of play. The public, which is largely uninvolved, needs to pay very close attention to this, for should it come to be; it’ll accelerate the death knell of our school system. Great communities and great schools go hand in hand. Some seem to have forgotten this.