Those in the know of how negotiations between school and city officials are actually shaking out are understandably keeping their cards held close to the torso this week following yet another meeting regarding the ongoing budget crisis that was held Wednesday.
We feel that “crisis” is an appropriate word regarding the school’s inability to balance its budget and the ongoing disagreement between those who feel the schools got themselves into this mess and those who say the city has chronically underfunded the schools for many years and such management is finally coming home to roost.
While it is encouraging that both sides continue to meet, next week, when the city council and school committee meet on Monday and Tuesday night consecutively, will reveal a much clearer picture as to how much closer – or not – these meetings have brought the two sides towards an accord of some kind. Judging from the perceived differences of opinions that linger and the sort of offers levied thus far, we believe they remain unfortunately distant from the kind of compromise that may be needed to avoid a lawsuit.
On the city’s side, you can’t exactly argue that they were being unreasonable in not immediately acquiescing to a request for $8.1 million at budget time for the schools when the city could only raise about $5 million through new tax revenue by law. However, one could argue that such an ask was not only a symbol of the school department’s difficult financial situation – made more difficult by a significant loss of state funding – but was also a message to the city.
That message? The cost of education is constantly rising, and not even declining enrollment and closing schools can overcome level funding or given tiny increases in budgetary funding year to year. Since 2010, schools have seen a near net zero increase in total funding contribution from the city. City spending, however, has increased by as much as 30 percent since 2010.
While the easy scapegoat argument seems to be that the school administration has mismanaged the budget and wasted dollars on unnecessary expenditures, there hasn’t been much substance put forward in the way of objective facts to support this serious claim.
Despite all of the noise, a fiscal and programmatic audit undertaken by the school department (as a preparatory step for a possible lawsuit to seek more funding) has thus far provided the only objective look into the operations of the school department, and it showed that the only thing truly out of whack about how much Warwick spends per pupil stems from how much it pays its teachers, which is significantly higher than comparable districts.
Unless other facts come to light, the inflammatory arguments – like the district over-spends on administration (the audit revealed that, comparative to like districts, they don’t), or they have bankrupted their budget by purchasing air conditioners for administrators and doorstops that don’t damage doors (both costs are financially insignificant to the overall budgetary need that is present) – need to come to an end.
And yet we seem to sit at an impasse where the city doesn’t trust the schools and the schools are tired of being ignored or criticized in the city council chambers with thinly-veiled or outright vocal claims that they are hiding money or otherwise misleading people about their financial situation.
It is a situation that is good for nobody – not taxpayers, property owners and especially not for the students and faculty working within the schools. These problems are creating real issues in the schools, not the least of which being that most schools can currently only be cleaned and sanitized every other night as we head into peak flu season due to the loss of seven custodians who were laid off to help balance an impossible to balance budget. Those custodians who remain deserve praise for their dedication against the odds to do what they can to keep the situation from getting even worse.
You would have to be mentally or emotionally disturbed to believe that anybody who got into the education field would purposefully allow children to become sick or even risk their health in order to stubbornly make a point about a lack of funding while they secretly held the answer in the form of millions of dollars hidden underneath a mattress somewhere. The schools need more money, and there’s really no avoiding that reality.
We sincerely hope that the city and schools can come to an agreeable arrangement that allows this situation to be resolved not only this year, but moving forward as well. Our students, our custodians, our teachers, our parents and every taxpaying citizen deserves as much.