By ETHAN HARTLEY
The school year is more than a month old, and the real impact of the budgetary crisis besetting the city’s school department is becoming apparent in a most unfortunate way.
As a result of the loss of seven custodians and seven clerical staff responsible for a wide variety of tasks, including the purchasing of cleaning supplies, schools are not being cleaned in the way that custodians know the schools need to be cleaned, or the way they know the students deserve.
“In the big picture, it’s not that we’re not doing our job, but it’s harder for us to do our job,” said Bob Perry, Pilgrim High School night custodian with 17 years of service in the Warwick School Department.
The custodial cuts – which were deemed necessary by the Warwick School Committee over the summer to free $750,000 in order to balance their budget – have resulted in understaffed teams of custodians responsible for the same large spaces. The layoffs have resulted in custodial teams splitting the schools into “areas,” that they clean on a rotating cycle.
At Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools, five custodians are cleaning seven areas, meaning there will be parts of the schools that cannot be cleaned until the following night. Winman and Warwick Veterans Middle Schools each have one fewer custodian than cleaning areas as well.
“You’re always doing catchup. You’re always trying to clean the areas as best you can – we don’t stop working – it just never gets cleaned the way it should be cleaned. That’s what we’re dealing with right now,” Perry explained. “Bathrooms aren’t cleaned the way they should. There’s trash left behind in two areas, and it’s nobody’s fault – it’s cuts. We don’t have an efficient way of doing things because we’re always behind the eight ball.”
Things are even more severe at the elementary level, where only three of the district’s 14 elementary schools were able to retain night custodians – the early learning center at John Brown Francis, Lippitt and Oakland Beach – and the other schools can only be cleaned every other night due to the shorthanded staff. This means that custodians coming in on a morning shift following a night of no cleaning have their work cut out for them, in addition to their other responsibilities.
For parents, especially those active on the Facebook group “Let’s Save Warwick Schools,” the obvious concern, aside from the aesthetic unpleasantness of uncleanliness in the classrooms, is the potential for spreading of disease due to surfaces not being significantly disinfected.
“I would hope not,” Anthony Ferrucci, financial director of Warwick Public Schools, said on Friday of the possibility of increased illnesses. “We’re cleaning as thoroughly as we can, but if they’re not going in and wiping down desktops every single night, which they physically cannot do, then as long as that desktop hasn’t been hit, I would say it has been exposed.”
Although student attendance numbers provided by the superintendent’s office show that the total number of students who have been out sick as of Oct. 4, 2018 is actually lower this year than in 2016 and 2017 (382 absent in 2018; 424 in 2017; and 466 in 2016), those numbers come with the caveat of being at the onset of the worst time of the annual flu season, so some expect the number to rise.
“Down in the gym, you’re dealing with Mercer, influenza, and this is the bad time,” Perry said, who was a successful wrestler on the Pilgrim team during his tenure in the early 80s. “It’s coming.”
Sherman School PTO President Karin Kavanagh is troubled by the situation as it cuts into use of the school after school hours [the PTO has to pay for a custodian if one isn’t on duty] and for health reasons.
“I’m very concerned once the flu season comes along,” she said.
For custodians like Perry who, for years, settled into a routine of cleaning their particular “areas” along with their coworkers, the adjustment has been hard to make and is a tough pill to swallow. However, despite the frustration, he understands the complexity behind the situation as well.
“You become family here,” Perry said. “I’m family with the teachers, I’m family with the kids. We’re here all the time. After being here 17 years, it’s sad. This isn’t about the money, it’s about trying to do my job. It’s hard for me to do my job when I’m not able to do it the correct way. And I don’t blame anybody, because their hands are tied too.”
Although she is not looking to point fingers either, Mary Townsend, President of the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) Union, says that facts are facts when it comes to how the school department got into the situation it finds itself in today, referring to when the city chose to slash the school budget by the temporary maximum 5 percent following the end of the Great Recession.
“The bottom line is when we took that 5 percent cut, other districts got it back, and Warwick never got it back,” said Townsend. “If you look at that 5 percent and look at the non-maintenance of effort year after year after year, if you let it build up, it just gets larger and larger.”
Townsend is not alone in pointing out lack of funding as the ultimate cause of the district’s woes. Whether or not the schools have been fiscally responsible over the past decade or so is at the very heart of the disagreement and potential lawsuit bubbling beneath ongoing meetings between city and school officials. Another meeting was held on Wednesday but did not result in any resolution made public.
“It was an honest meeting,” Superintendent Philip Thornton said of the hour and a half meeting between Mayor Joe Solomon, City Council President Steve Merolla, School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado and school finance director Anthony Ferrucci. “I think both sides are truly making efforts but we haven’t really put it to rest.”
Multiple members of the city council have argued that the school department has not been fiscally responsible, and should have realized significantly more savings as a result of their declining enrollment and consolidation of schools. When the school department put forward its budget ask of about $8.1 million in funding from the city, they received only $1.5 million on top of the level-funded budget put forward by former Mayor Scott Avedisian prior to his departure in mid-May.
As a result, the schools had to cut about $6.6 million from the budget through staff layoffs and various programs, in addition to unfunded liabilities that now loom, such as a $500,000 unpaid “contingency” that was put aside to save sports from being cut; $690,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to get a waiver from RIDE to not participate in the state Pathways program; and the $750,000 in custodian cuts, which clearly cannot be a long-term solution moving forward.
Meetings will be held by the city council and school committee on Oct. 15 and 16, and will shed more insight into how far these negotiations have actually gotten the two sides.
After school activities suffer
Another consequence of the loss of night custodians has been the ability for schools to utilize the school buildings as community spaces for extracurricular activities and clubs.
While in normal years, a custodian would have been working in a building until as late as 10 p.m. prior to locking up, this year the shorthanded staff cannot dedicate any time to unlocking or locking doors for after school activities.
As a result, all non-sanctioned school activities – meaning all uncoached sports and all clubs or activities that don’t have a compensated adviser leading them – must pay a fee of $108 for a custodian to come in for a four-hour shift, which is the minimum shift allowable under the WISE contract, in order for them to be able to utilize the building for their activity.
“A lot of the clubs and activities only run for an hour and a half or two hours with 20-25 students in activity. Those costs are really hampering their ability to do after school functions,” said Ferrucci. “So, they’re looking at thousands of dollars in potential bills, and they don’t have that kind of money for 25 kids to meet twice a week for an hour and a half.”
Ferrucci said that club leaders, community and parent advocates for non-sanctioned groups have gotten creative in trying to work around the situation, and that he has been allowing groups to fill out a single building use form and split the cost of bringing in an additional custodian.
“We’re willing to work with people, I’m not trying to get $100 per group,” Ferrucci said.
While they have been somewhat lost in the shuffle of the custodians being cut, the seven clerical positions that were cut have also had impacts on those working in the schools. These positions included purchasing agents, library clerks, a member of the special services office that was responsible for reporting and processing data on special needs students and a secretary for the curriculum director. All of these jobs have been absorbed into other employees’ responsibilities, stretching them thin.
Still, Townsend said multiple times while speaking of the situation from outside Pilgrim High School on Tuesday that the conversation should be about moving forward, not dwelling on who should be blamed or arguing with one another.
“The focus, for me, is on the students and what can we do?” she said. “Even with the frustration and disappointment and the discouragement, the WISE members are doing the best they can to clean the schools and work for the students.”