The Warwick School Committee has officially filed suit against the City of Warwick in hopes to receive nearly $5 million in funding for their hole-riddled FY19 budget.
In Rhode Island, the measure is known as a “Caruolo Action,” named after the Caruolo Act that was established in the 90s and enables school committees to sue their respective municipalities if they feel as though budgetary allotments do not allow them to adequately satisfy educational requirements put forth in the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) Basic Education Plan (BEP).
The complaint was filed in Providence Superior Court on Friday morning, Dec. 21, and names all current members of the Warwick City Council, city treasurer (now finance director) Brian Silvia and Mayor Joseph Solomon as defendants.
This development marks the official end to a speculative period of more than eight months, beginning with the Warwick School Committee approving a FY19 budget of more than $130 million during its April 18 meeting, of which included a request of an additional $8 million in funding from the Warwick City Council.
The Council subsequently awarded $1.5 million of that request in June, which they argued was above the call for level funding put forward by former mayor Scott Avedisian – who had stepped down in mid-May – and that they could only raise about $5.8 through a maximum tax increase. Even if all that money went to the schools while ignoring other expenses, council president Steve Merolla has argued in the past, the request for $8 million was impossible from the start.
Still, this left the schools with a $6.6 million hole to fill in order to balance their budget and comply with state law. They did this by slashing WISE Union staff – including janitorial and clerical positions vital to operations within the schools – cutting library clerks and cutting supplies and programming across the board, from floor wax to the entirety of the approximately $100,000 set aside for the Mentor Rhode Island program.
Additionally, the schools included large, assumptive savings in these cuts, including requests for waivers to RIDE that would alleviate the district’s obligations to pay for things like students going out of district for technical education programs, and dead-on-arrival requests such as asking the state if the district could begin charging students for riding the bus.
The court complaint includes these requests – and their subsequent, firm denials – and draconian budgetary measures in the numerous exhibits, presumably to show a superior court justice the lengths to which the school department went to try and resolve the budgetary crisis within their means.
The department went further, hiring two educational experts to conduct an operational audit of the district and present their findings, which was done in late August and revealed, among other things, that Warwick would need an additional $4 million above what was provided to satisfy the requirements of the BEP and, further, that some of the cuts made by the department – such as the custodian layoffs – were in direct violation of educational statutes.
School department and school committee officials met multiple times from September to December with Merolla, Solomon, Silvia and members of the Warwick City Council to try and bridge the gap between the two fiscal realities of the sides. Solomon would offer $1.75 million – which would be enough to cover the principal and interest payments on a 2006 bond that school committee members argued had unfairly hamstrung the district – and would put the city’s total offer at $3.25 million of the original $8 million request.
However, the sides never got any closer to a deal. As numbers continued to be updated from school department finances closing out at the end of the calendar year, the targeted need of about $4 million concluded in the audit report was raised to a total deficit of $4,942,759, which is the bottom line sought by the school committee in the suit.
Superintendent Philip Thornton said on Wednesday that the parties negotiated in good faith but ultimately were not able to come to an agreement. He mentioned, as outlined in the complaint, how the school department is receiving only about $14,000 more from the city than they received nearly 10 years ago in FY2010 – a 0.01 percent increase from the $123,968,000 allocated back then. Additionally, the history included in the complaint references the 5 percent cut to the school department budget that was initiated by the city in FY2011, which was never directly restored in subsequent years.
Merolla said on Wednesday that he felt as though the current iteration of the Warwick School Committee was “preserving their rights to appeal” the budgetary decision made the city council, as the new school committee that will be seated in January might not hold the same position on filing suit against Warwick.
He reiterated that the originally request of $8 million was well beyond a reasonable ask from the city, and that a district that has seen considerable reductions in enrollment and that has closed six schools in the past few years should be realizing more savings than they have presented.
Thornton said that consolidation of the secondary schools heading into the 2015/16 school year did net significant savings that resulted in no additional ask from the city during that time period. However, consolidating three elementary schools this past summer did not net significant savings as the students had to be redistributed elsewhere in the district and the move to a middle school model included significant financial costs associated with it.
“We put a lot of the savings for the elementary closures into implementing the middle school model,” Thornton said.
Merolla called this a “convenient” argument, and held firm in his belief that the schools should be seeing more savings.
“From our perspective, we’re doing everything we can, but it’s up to them to balance their budget and to do it in a way that’s responsible to everybody,” he said. “There’s only so much the city can give…at some point you have to put your foot down.”
Mayor Joseph Solomon expressed his disappointment regarding the situation on Wednesday. He said that the aforementioned $1.75 million offer could have gone to restoring some personnel and funded the mentoring program that was cut, however school personnel have consistently fought this notion, as the big-ticket obligations such as the bond principal and interest and unfunded RIDE liabilities would have to be taken care of prior to restoration of programming and personnel.
“I would much rather have utilized any additional funds for students and programs rather than address these issues in a court setting,” Solomon said in a statement. “I’m surprised that in the final hours of a school administration, they would choose to take this action just days away from the swearing in of the new School Committee. Hopefully, the new School Committee will agree with my sentiments and proceed in good faith to put the students first and dismiss the action without prejudice so funds can be used instead to benefit the students and school programming for the common good of our community.”
Outgoing School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado said on Wednesday that the suit was the culmination of a long chain of events that has finally come to the end of the line, and shouldn’t be a surprising development.
“We have been saying for years that this day would come and here it is,” she said. “In my opinion, attempts were made in good faith by the School Department to come to an agreeable solution. It’s now four months into the school year and we do not have this resolved. How much longer are the students and employees supposed to wait? I believe we did our job. I would do exactly the same thing given the circumstances.”