Warwick schools open for the 2019/20 school year this Thursday for K-6 and ninth grade students, with all students beginning on Friday. It will mark the end of a drama-filled summer that was rife with uncertainty regarding whether or not sports and after-school activities would be running – in addition to concerns about the cleanliness of buildings due to the laying off of custodians.
Those marquee issues have been resolved, at least for the time being. Sports, after-school activities and second shift custodians have all been brought back following a $4 million allotment approved by the Warwick City Council in July, meaning there will be no situations like last year where groups had to finance custodians to stay after their allotted work hours to hold activities.
However, with about $7.7 million made in cuts to balance the school’s $173 million budget back in June, the cuts that remain will still be felt by teachers and students in some ways as the year goes on. One of those cuts came at the expense of keeping up to date with the district’s technological push.
“The biggest thing from a student perspective is we're not buying new Chromebooks,” said Doug Alexander, technology director for Warwick, in a recent interview.
Alexander had over $800,000 in his technical hardware budget slashed – 90 percent of the budget – which has necessitated older Chromebooks being recycled and distributed to new students. Alexander said about 2,500 Chromebooks that would have been refreshed with new laptops have been recycled and will be re-used instead.
In total there are about 10,500 Chromebooks in the district, which is enough for every student and teacher to have one and to have some reserves in the inevitable instance that some break or are broken during the school year. Alexander said that at Warwick Veterans Middle School last year there were “several hundred” screens replaced.
“It is our biggest expense,” he said of replacing the screens that get broken.
The budget cut affected more than just Chromebooks, as the district won’t be able to buy more projectors for classrooms, and peripherals for computers – such as printers, various cables, keyboard and mice – will be in short supply as well. Principals will not be able to get new laptops either, which Alexander said are getting to be three and four years old and in need of a refresh too.
Additionally, hopes Alexander had of beefing up security through increasing data backups and maintaining the data center’s aging equipment have been put on the back burner as well.
“It's digging into core operational stuff,” he said of the cuts, adding that the problem this year will only be expounded in years to come, as technological issues pile up quickly when there is no money to maintain existing equipment or invest in new versions.
“It's a little frustrating when everyone focuses on sports and technology falls below the line. It's going to be a tough year if we don't come back from this [level of funding],” he said. “We’ll have to spend twice as much next year to replace everything and I don't see how that's realistic. You're just kicking the can down the road at that point.”
From a teacher’s perspective, Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh – who is about to start her 30th year in Warwick and her 32nd year overall in teaching – had a couple key issues in mind regarding the budget as well.
First, she mentioned the cuts including the running of late buses, which would ferry students from after-school activities that run around 3:15 p.m. for the high schools and 3:30 p.m. for the middle schools.
“If you're going to have activities, you're going to need the late buses,” Netcoh said.
The issue had generated conversation at recent school committee meetings, and although it isn’t finalized yet, finance director Anthony Ferrucci said on Monday that late buses would indeed be running this year.
Thanks to an unexpected increase of about $280,000 in state funding, the school committee was able to move forward on a second phase of bond projects that will kick off in the summer of 2020 by spending $200,000 of that increased state money. Of the remaining $80,000 the schools are planning to earmark $25,000 of it to pay for the late buses.
Another issue for Netcoh, an English teacher, was the total cut to the budget lines that would enable the purchase of library books ($21,000), reference books ($25,000) and periodicals ($13,000).
“They're geared towards the students,” she said of the materials. “It's not just ‘Time’ or ‘People’ magazines, they’re educational periodicals.”
There is potential for the remainder of the aforementioned state aid money (about $55,000 if the late buses are brought back) to be utilized for the purchase of these materials, but that would have to be finalized or discussed at the committee’s upcoming meeting on Thursday.
The topic of professional development is another of importance. The district saved around $300,000 by cutting all scheduled professional development opportunities for teachers throughout the year, leaving only one voluntary session for elementary educators only this Wednesday – which unfortunately is also held on the same day as the district’s orientation day.
“If it's good PD then obviously we need it,” Netcoh said. “And we need it in general, because they're making so many changes.”
Lastly, Netcoh said that the $15,000 that would be applied towards renting space to hold school graduations has to be restored prior to the year ending, as no school in Warwick has the capacity to host a class graduation and the accompanying families.
“That needs to be put back,” she said.