Monday night’s meeting of the Warwick City Council showcased a rare phenomenon not often seen in covering local government – widespread participation from the citizenry, a majority of which were high school teenagers either not of voting age or just on the cusp of becoming so.
The catalyst for this unusual turnout was, unfortunately, something more predictable. Those in attendance had something to lose. In this case, it was the notion that their attendance and advocacy would somehow impact the funding level provided to the schools, which, as it stands, puts in jeopardy everything from professional development for teachers and the employment of custodians to, the main ticket item, a complete cut of school sports.
Alas, the budget has already been passed. If the students wished to make an impact on the budget, they would have been better served to show up a week ago when the council was deliberating its allocations. More specifically, they should have showed up in force last Tuesday when the Warwick School Department budget was up for discussion.
This is not to say that the students are to blame for the plight they find themselves in. Students are consistently at the whim of forces beyond their control. In Warwick’s specific case, they are at the mercy of decades-old grudges and disagreements between various configurations of city councils, school committees and mayors.
As it stands today, the relationship between the city’s legislative body – who controls the funding of the school department – and said school department is one of complete disarray, and there are no encouraging signs that we can see which indicate this strained relationship is on track for brighter days in the future.
There are fundamental disagreements between the two bodies that inherently clash with one another, causing discussions to derail before they can even begin.
A perfect example is how the schools maintain they have a $4 million deficit heading into the end of this fiscal year. The city maintains the schools can cover that deficit by pulling from their private pension fund, which received $4.1 million in contributions above the recommended contributions since 2014. The schools have since released an attorney’s expert opinion that this measure would be in direct violation of federal law – and even if this weren’t the case, such a solution is purely short-term and would create a sizable structural deficit. Yet, the city holds steadfast in the solution. No compromise is in sight.
The city, during mediation, also brought in a CPA firm to conduct an analysis of the school budget and revealed, to his calculations, they had about $3.5 million in unrealized surplus that they will end the year with. Those savings included things like $56,000 in gasoline purchases and $150,000 for textbooks that they won’t need to expend – because, they assume, who buys textbooks at the end of the year when students are about to leave?
Well, that was actually exactly the plan, according to the school department. The textbook purchases are for next year, which would replace textbooks that are older than the standards that now grade the quality of such books. In terms of the gas line item, the CPA’s analysis failed to take into consideration the schools had only received a few months’ worth of bills, not nine as had been assumed.
Then there is the complete separation of realities that either side seems to reside in when it comes to what constitutes sufficient funding. City Council President Steve Merolla and Mayor Joseph Solomon continuously bring up the $1.75 million the city has allocated to cover principal and interest on a 2006 school construction bond and $500,000 in additional funding over last year. They also bring up $6 million in bond funding that was recently released as part of a $40 million bond to complete infrastructure projects within the schools.
But these are half-truths that omit crucial context. The $500,000 is coming from the state, not the city. And while the principal and interest payments are certainly a generous aid, that payment doesn’t contribute to trimming down the school’s overall deficit since they already cut it from their budget – arguing they never should have had to pay it in the first place, as no other school department in Rhode Island had ever born such a burden. The $6 million in bond funding is not going to bring back sports or janitors, as it is restricted to capital improvements, and insinuating otherwise is disingenuous.
This isn’t to place blame solely on the city council. The school department has a troubled history of failing to properly communicate and failing to accurately project deficits and surpluses. We understand that managing a budget nearing $175 million is no easy task, but it’s understandable that council members would become frustrated when obtaining consistent, accurate information becomes more challenging than it needs to be, or has to be.
What these misunderstandings do – either intentional or not – is create a wholly dysfunctional environment for meaningful deliberation. It is impossible to come to a common middle ground when both sides are on completely different planets from one another. When one side believes there is $3.5 million in savings and the other side finds $600,000 within the same line items, it demonstrates clearly that the two sides are not on the same page.
Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the people caught in between this ongoing grudge match are the students who have no real say in the matter. Each side needs to be bigger than the squabbling that we have seen so far this budget season, and more honest with each other if we’re ever to have a functioning school department that does more than merely cling to life year to year. We cannot ignore the fact that 99 percent of new city revenue raised since 2010 has gone to the city budget either.
Regardless of the ultimate efficacy of their attendance, the deluge of students attending a city council meeting was still a sight to see. Students approached the podium and gave impassioned testimony as to the importance of school sports, and asked hard questions of council members that otherwise face little public scrutiny throughout the course of their normal legislative duties.
In the future, we hope that young people and the public at large take a greater interest in the public affairs that govern their everyday lives – ideally before it’s too late next time.