A bird's eye view of a budget crisis
In the ongoing situation surrounding the Warwick School Department budget crisis, it is ever important to read between lines and not allow knee-jerk, emotional reactions to dictate how we think and, more importantly, how we vote in the upcoming election.
Of course, you may arrive at whatever opinion you wish when it comes to who you believe should be on the Warwick School Committee and whether or not the current school and city administration is doing a good job.
However, we find it has become far too easy for misinformation to spread in the digital age, especially social media channels, which can lead to people making decisions based on incorrect data or, worse, purposefully misleading false statements from those who stand to benefit from such misgivings.
As such, we find it to be our responsibility to help clear up some of the confusion regarding the budget situation – which is an admittedly complex topic with many overlapping threads that make it difficult to assess exactly how we wound up in a position where the schools are cutting mentoring programs, the maximum number of teachers allowable, custodians and bringing up the possibility of cutting sports.
While we cannot delve as deeply into the history of the district as this topic truly warrants in this form, we can start in 2011 – when city’s and towns in Rhode Island were given the option to reduce funding to their school districts by a maximum of 5 percent to help recover some money lost in the Great Recession. Warwick reduced the school’s budget by the maximum 5 percent allowable, equating to a little over $6 million gone from the school’s budget.
To aid schools in recovering some of this money, the state implemented a sort of “catch-up” provision, which gave Warwick around $500,000-$750,000 per year. The schools have used this money for the past seven years to largely counteract funding lost from declining enrollment in the district, which has fallen 10 percent since 2010. However, this provision ended with last year’s budget, leaving a shortfall of $844,000 caused by declining enrollment that now has to be covered from elsewhere in the budget.
Compiling on top of this, Warwick’s funding from the state has gone down formulaically. A reduction of merely 2 percent in funding from the state from last year to this year equates to a loss of another $782,000 that has to be found elsewhere in the budget. Compare this to Cranston, who gets a 54 percent reimbursement rate from the state compared to Warwick’s 38.5 percent, amounting to a whopping $23 million more in funding from the state.
While in no way do we insinuate that teachers don’t deserve good pay and benefits, it would be unethical to leave out the fact that this budget season also saw contractual increases for teachers and WISE staff, along with step increases, that amounted to about $5.18 million, of which the city allocated $3 million to offset.
Despite the political blame game that accompanied this whole situation, the fiscal reality is that it left another $2.18 million to find in the budget. These expenses are also not going to just away either, as the teachers are set to receive two more 3 percent increases for the next two years.
Once you add up increasing costs for pensions and sending kids to out of district programs as part of state mandates, the balloon only inflates more. Charter schools should also be placed under the microscope, as they actually receive more money from public school districts facing declining enrollment, creating a double whammy where public school districts receive less from the state in their formula, but have to pay more to support charter schools due to their formula.
If you’re of the mind to put the burden of the blame on the school department’s central office for not cutting more administrators, keep in mind that of the $4.9 million budgeted for administrative positions, $3.2 million of that goes to school principals. To argue that the district can solve its woes by firing more administrators is, among other things, inaccurate. For comparison, $73 million in the budget goes to salaries for teaching staff, not including benefits.
To those wondering why there weren’t savings from closing schools and consolidating buildings over recent years, there has been – about $4.1 million stemming from the most recent closings and consolidation efforts to be exact. However, all that did was offset some of the costs outlined above. In the end, $8.1 million is the number the department reached as their target for funding assistance from the city. What they got instead was $1.5 million, and this is what has led to our current predicament.
Criticism is warranted of any municipal department when outright wasteful spending is apparent. But when a school district – one that is receiving essentially the same amount of money it received in 2010 – is facing shortfalls of over $8 million, it is indicative of a much more troublesome and less convenient cause; a long-term problem which will require trust, collaboration and the burying of hatchets to overcome.
The city recently offered $1.75 million, supposedly in an attempt to help close the $6.6 million deficit that exists. However, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that $1.75 million is exactly how much money the schools would have otherwise had to pay for principal and interest payments on a school construction bond issued in 2006 – payments they had long lamented being burdened with, as they claim it should have been the city’s responsibility from the start. This offer, it seems, could be a way for the city to shoulder a responsibility it knows it should have shouldered a long time ago while still appearing to be extending an olive branch.
This is also made apparent by Mayor Solomon’s suggestion to use the offered funds to restore programming and perhaps some teaching or clerical positions, and at the same time suggesting more cuts to administration. Such suggestions are no doubt popular things to mention politically, but it conveniently ignores the reality that all such an offer really does is turn a $6.6 million gap into a $4.85 million gap – and the planks for the bridge can still only be made by sacrificing the same positions and programs that nobody wants to cut.
It will be interesting to see the results of the school department audits. Such analyses are objective and look purely at the facts. On this topic, that’s precisely what we need more of.