The Warwick City Council intergovernmental committee has approved a resolution for a vote of no confidence in Warwick Public Schools finance director Anthony Ferrucci, citing specific instances of what they deem to be fiscal mismanagement and doubts regarding the credibility of his budgetary reporting.
“Not only do I want the school committee and us to work together, I want us to be able to trust each other,” said Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi, who brought forth the resolution. “And we can't trust each other if the main intermediary providing the numbers, which both of us have to trust, is Mr. Ferrucci. I want to give the school committee the ammunition they need to help remove Mr. Ferrucci. And I believe this no confidence vote gives them that ammunition, if they didn't have enough already.”
The resolution was unable to proceed to the full council for a vote because the Monday night hearing had dragged into the midnight hour – a byproduct of the body’s finance committee proceeding for more than five hours as hundreds of students packed the chamber protesting funding levels provided to the school department – and under open meetings law, the council had to adjourn shortly after it was approved at the committee level.
The complicated historical context and well-documented, ongoing financial struggles of the school department that contributed to the chaotic environment of Monday night’s meeting ultimately became a backdrop for council members to unload their frustrations regarding Ferrucci’s role as the school’s chief budget officer.
Finance committee chair and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who supported the resolution of no confidence, expressed his frustration that high budgetary asks from the school department always seemed to result in unexpected surpluses.
“It's particularly upsetting that, tonight, there's a lot of folks in this room that are angry at the city council because they don't have or have not received the big picture,” Ladouceur said. “Every year [that I’ve been on the city council] except one they have redone their fiscal analysis and come back to us and said, guess what we found? We have an extra million or more that we found in surplus.”
“Last year he came and said we need $8 million and not a penny less…Until mediation comes to an end and it turned out they didn't need a penny. They needed nothing,” said Sinapi, referencing a recent mediation award which ruled in favor of the city that they were not on the hook for additional funding to help close the school department’s roughly $4 million budget deficit.
Most recently, on Monday night the finance committee heard testimony from representatives of West Bay Community Health while deliberating who should get the bid for the city’s health insurance needs. City Council President Merolla asked if the school department, who is insured under West Bay, was truly projecting a 21 percent increase in their insurance costs, as had been presented during budget hearings last week.
Alan Lord, executive director for West Bay Community Health, said that the increase they projected for the schools was closer to 14.49 percent, which Merolla said would amount to about a $1 million difference in assumed costs for medical insurance.
Another large contributor to the vote of no confidence is the finding during recent mediation that Ferrucci had contributed about $4.1 million since 2014 over the high-end contribution to the schools’ private pension fund as was recommended by the school’s actuary – an amount known as the annual recommended contribution, or ARC.
Ferrucci has defended his funding of the pension in subsequent interviews, and the pension fund was praised by the state Treasurer’s office as one of the best-funded pensions in Rhode Island. However, council members have utilized these contributions as a troubling misplacing of priorities among the school department’s crucial needs in other areas.
“I don't think that's something to be proud of,” Ladouceur said. “To knowingly and willfully over-fund that pension at your own discretion without an actuary or any advisory body from the outside telling you to do so, I think is self-serving.”
“He also took pride in his overfunding of the pension rather than admit error, and he also contended it was simply something that was always done since prior to him getting here, so it was okay that he did it,” Sinapi said. “I don't know about you, but that's not how I do my job. I don't think that's how any of us do our jobs. I know Councilman Ladouceur does finance committee very differently, and I don't see why Mr. Ferrucci does his job as a finance officer any differently.”
The council was also critical of another finding via mediation where Kyle Connors, director of assurance for CPA firm Marcum LLP, performed a fiscal analysis of the school department budget and reported that they could see as much as a $3.5 million surplus by the end of the year. Ferrucci has since disputed those numbers, and school representatives who were party to the mediation claim that the actual surplus was closer to $600,000 – which they incorporated into their final ask, taking the deficit down from $4.6 million closer to $4 million.
But that financial disagreement is simply one of many, Sinapi contended. He took note to relieve the school committee of some responsibility, saying they had to trust the numbers provided to them by their financial officer.
“If I'm the school committee, I'm going to believe my budget guy is telling me the truth. I have no reason to think otherwise, but it turns out consistently that Mr. Ferrucci was not telling the truth,” Sinapi said. “The problem is that Ferrucci is, at this point in my observation, wrong more than he is right, which is incredibly concerning.”
Sinapi cited the school department cutting janitors, resulting in unemployment payments born by the department and some schools only being cleaned every other day, which he claims resulted in a slew of sicknesses among students and teachers, as well as denying a donation from a local business to support school lunch debt within the district – which resulted in national media attention – as other factors contributing to the vote of no confidence.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix went back to 2017, when alarm systems at Holliman and Norwood Elementary schools either faltered (in the former case) or outright failed (in the latter case). He said he was dissatisfied with Ferrucci’s handling of the situation, claiming that he did not handle the matter with enough urgency or transparency.
“If I were in the administration of Warwick Public Schools, on hearing about something like this I would immediately want to take action to make sure all the teachers, at a minimum, are informed,” he said. “Public safety is paramount, and it seems to me that Mr. Ferrucci did not take public safety seriously.”
Mayor Joseph Solomon, in an interview on Wednesday, stayed on the sidelines regarding the no confidence vote, taking a more optimistic outlook.
“I didn’t ask anyone to docket that. That’s the legislative branch,” he said. “In that area I just try to remain optimistic and address things hopefully in a positive manner as we go forward, whether it be Mr. Ferrucci or Dr. Thornton or the School Committee Chairperson. I’m not going to throw any idle threats. I’m not going to say I’m cutting this, this or this. I don’t think that benefits anybody. I think we all want what’s best for the students, the teachers, the staff and the community overall.”
Regardless of whether one side is right or if the truth lies somewhere in the middle, the seeds of distrust – at least between some members of the city council and the school department – have firmly taken root.
“It's always the same thing. Ferrucci didn't do anything wrong, according to Ferrucci. Ferrucci is perfect. Everyone else is wrong,” Sinapi said. “Ferrucci takes pride in what he does and how he does it no matter how wrong he consistently is and no matter how much it hurts the schools and the city. He needs to go, and it's long overdue.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton did not agree with the resolution.
“Mr. Ferrucci has worked for many years at Warwick Public Schools and he has been part of many positive efforts in his time here,” he said during a phone interview Wednesday. School committee chairwoman Karen Bachus declined to comment on the resolution.
Ferrucci is out of the country until next week on vacation and could not respond to this story.