The next saga in the Warwick school budget crisis has been written, but once again the future remains uncertain.
On Monday morning Mayor Joseph Solomon sent out a press release through his office reporting that the city had offered $1.75 million in additional funding to help address a $6.6 million deficit faced by the Warwick School Department. The funds, if accepted, would come from the $5 million line item for road paving that the City Council approved during budget hearings.
“Coupled with the $1.5million allocated by the City Council [during budget proceedings], the additional $1.75million will provide the School Department with over 40 percent of their [original] requested increased funding [of $8.1M],” Solomon said through the release.
He went on to point out that this funding should be able to be used to restore cuts made by the schools to help balance their budget, such as:
Solomon additionally took the opportunity to provide a suggestion on how the school department could potentially recoup some more savings to go towards their deficit, saying through the release that, “in the School Department budget, Professional Management and Administrators are to be paid $4.62 million to 42 full-time positions at an average rate of $110,152.81. Only one position has been reduced in salary.”
“Solomon said that, given the costs associated with the 42 professional personnel of the School Department, additional cost savings could be realized through the restructuring of the Administrative Division, and suggested the savings be put back into the custodial and clerical positions, which contribute to the betterment of the students of the district and facilities,” the release continued.
On Monday afternoon Superintendent Philip Thornton and School Finance Director Tony Ferrucci agreed that the offered allocation was a “good start,” but lamented that even if the allocation is accepted, the schools would still be facing a budgetary gap of around $4.85 million. On top of that was another issue.
“I think it’s a good start but I think the press release is not factually accurate,” Thornton said.
Thornton explained how Solomon’s assertion that the administration only being reduced by one salary was totally wrong, when in fact there are 5.5 entire positions within the administration not included in this budget compared to last year. This includes two principal positions from Wickes and Randall Holden (which are closed), a construction coordinator, a part-time advisory position within the curriculum department and two central office positions that have yet to be determined, but have been removed from the budget already.
Next, Thornton and Ferrucci explained how the money offered by the city wouldn’t be suitable to fund cuts mentioned in the press release for two reasons. For one, most of the items listed – such as funds for out of district placement, school bus monitors and sports – were never actually cut in the first place, merely proposed during the school committee’s process of approving and denying cuts.
Secondly, the money offered would only be enough to cover the principal and interest payments amounting to $1.75 million that the school department has, through school committee confirmation as of last Thursday, voted to officially no longer pay. That payment stems from a bond issued in 2006, and the schools have long cried foul over their shouldering of the debt payments.
“The P&I [principal and interest] is an exact match for that number. That would be a wash,” Thornton said. “All the other cuts still remain; that’s our reality right now.”
Ferrucci provided a list of every cut approved by the Warwick School Committee during a meeting in July that was necessary to close the $6.6 million gap and balance the budget. Doing so required steps such as cutting funding for the Mentor Rhode Island program, laying off 15 custodians, a guidance counselor and numeracy teacher at Warwick Vets, two librarians (one part time), an elementary social worker, four library clerks and two additional administrators.
These cuts also included slotting $500,000 into the “contingencies” section of the budget, which essentially means they will have to find that amount of money prior to the school year ending or they will face another deficit. The cuts also included a hopeful assumption the city might be able to get a waiver from RIDE that exempted them from paying $690,000 towards the state’s Pathways program. That waiver was not granted.
Thornton expanded that the $1.75 million offer could not go towards restoring cut programs such as Mentor Rhode Island because they have to address the budgetary shortfalls of highest priority first – specifically the nearly $1.1 million in known contingencies mentioned in the above paragraph.
All the $1.75 million does, in effect, is reduce the total deficit from $6.6 million to $4.85 million.
“I want to bring it back, but first I have to take care of what I have to take care of,” Thornton said in regards to restoring the Mentor RI program funding. On top of that, Thornton and Ferrucci both agreed that restoring custodial service would be a higher priority item than restoring mentoring, as the schools will be largely unable to be used after school hours due to the unavailability of cleaning staff.
The offer, while not solving the budgetary problem, could be framed as a step in the right direction towards a hopeful compromise.
School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado said on Monday afternoon that the school department has been approved to appear before a special meeting of the City Council on Wednesday, Aug. 15, and that she is available for meetings with the city administration any time prior to or after that date for any clarifications necessary.
“I look forward to meeting with the city council and the mayor,” she said. “We would appreciate the opportunity to explain to the council exactly what the state of our budget is…My hope is that we can resolve this matter in a manner that is fiscally responsible for all concerned.”
Meanwhile, the two consultants hired by the school department to conduct programmatic and fiscal audits of the department’s operations are continuing to work and should have reports ready to be released to the public by the end of the month. The possibility of a lawsuit to recoup more money remains, but for now the two sides are apparently willing to continue negotiating.
“It has been communicated for years that we would be at this crossroads. The question now is are we going to work together to come up with a solution or are we going to continue the swiping and finger pointing?” pondered Furtado. “I won’t. We need to lead by example.”