The school budget situation – where the schools remain multiple millions short of balancing their FY19 budget – is a common thread that runs between the four candidates running in primaries.
The candidates, running in Ward 4 and Ward 8 to replace outgoing council members Mayor Joe Solomon and Councilman Joe Gallucci respectively want the ongoing dispute over the budget resolved, but differ on how best to do that. Also on the radar of the candidates are sewers, roads and issues pertaining to senior citizens. All said they supported Mayor Solomon and thought they could work with him.
The race in Ward 4, which runs up the Warwick coast from Conimicut and inland to Warwick Pond, is to fill the seat of Mayor Joe Solomon, who left as Council President and Ward 4 Councilman in May to become acting mayor after former mayor Scott Avedisian left Warwick to take up post as the CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
Since June the Ward 4 seat has been unfilled, leaving the city council with only eight members.
That’s due to change this election, as Ernie Flagg and James McElroy face off in the Democratic primary. The winner will go on to face independent Mike Penta in the General Election.
“I don’t think we have great representation in the council,” said Flagg. “I mean, some people have been there too long. I really think there should be term limits.”
Flagg enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from Warwick Vets in 1981 and served in Germany for six years as a flight mechanic and crew chief. After getting out of the service he returned to Warwick and started working as a plumber in 1987, and he served in the National Guard for six years starting in 1989. Flagg owns his own plumbing business, E.W Flagg Plumbing, and is a co-owner of Cole Farm Laundromat. He urges voters to check out his Facebook page, “Ernie Flagg for Council Ward 4,” to find out more about his candidacy. In 2016 he ran against Mayor Joe Solomon for Solomon’s then Ward 4 seat.
When asked why he wanted to run for City Council, Flagg said, “You can only complain so much about what’s going on. If you don’t do anything, you’re not part of solving the problem.”
His opponent, James McElroy, believes in working together to get things done.
“I think there’s been too much fighting amongst the different parties,” said McElroy. “I think you end up getting a better outcome if you work collaboratively rather than fighting against each other.”
A Warwick resident for more than 40 years, McElroy is a graduate of La Salle High School and Bryant College. He retired in 2012 from working for the State of Rhode Island “in multiple capacities.” He worked at the Division of Taxation as well as the Supreme Court, and also helped draft laws as Legislative Council at the State House. His four children grew up in Warwick and attended Warwick schools, and still live in the city. McElroy has coached Little League Baseball and youth hockey, and is a parishioner at St. Timothy’s church. McElroy is the endorsed Democrat.
“I’ve always been interested in government,” said McElroy. “I like to read. I read up on all the issues, and if I don’t know an issue I’ll study it until I do.”
When asked about their support for Solomon, both candidates said they supported the mayor.
“He has the most experience and he knows the intricacies of City Hall,” said Flagg. “He knows the finances. I can work with him and I look forward to working with him and the rest of the council.”
McElroy believes that the current budget dispute between the City Council and the School Committee should be solved through cooperation, not litigation. He said, “The only one who really wins in court is the lawyers.”
“What should have been done is if you’re looking for money you should make a better argument for how much money you need,” said McElroy about the School Committee. “Maybe Mayor Avedisian didn’t put enough money into the budget to begin with.”
Flagg thinks the School Committee is mostly at fault
“We need to know where the money’s coming from, plain and simple,” said Flagg. “They’ve shut schools and fired teachers, but they’re still asking for more.”
As for other issues they feel strongly about, Flagg mentioned concerns for the elderly in Buttonwoods and level-funding taxes, while McElroy pointed to the lack of school funding from the state.
“I don’t think Warwick gets as much local school aid as it should get,” said McElroy. “Cranston gets over $23 million more aid than Warwick gets.”
“I’m a hard worker,” said Flagg, advocating for his candidacy. “I’m just trying to be a voice for the people out there. If they need to say something out there I’ll say it if they can’t.”
About his appeal to voters McElroy said, “I’m honest and hardworking, and I’ll represent [voters’] interests. I’m big on transparency and accountability.”
Schools also define the race in Ward 8 between current School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado and Anthony Sinapi, a lawyer. The school budget, the school consolidation process, and the job that the School Committee has done under Furtado all took center place in discussions with both candidates.
“I happen to have probably the hardest job, next to the mayor, in the city,” said Furtado about her time as School Committee Chair. “You have to make everybody happy. You have to make your employees happy, you have to make your parents happy, and most importantly you have to educate our students and worry about taxpayers. It’s a lot of juggling.”
Furtado grew up in Warwick as one of ten children, graduated from Toll Gate High School, and has spent the past 12 years on the School Committee, where she’s led controversial efforts to consolidate schools and fought to keep a balanced budget, all the while dealing with level-funding from the City Council and decreasing state support. She works in logistics, moving freight around the country. Furtado is the endorsed Democrat, and has the backing of outgoing Councilman Joe Gallucci.
“I’ve spent the last 12 years on the School Committee, non-partisan, and I just want to continue to give back to my community,” said Furtado. “I believe that I can be a strong voice and an advocate for the taxpayers and the citizens in Warwick.”
Sinapi thinks Warwick schools are heading in the wrong direction, mostly due to what he calls the “gross mismanagement” of school finances by the School Committee, headed by Furtado.
“I’ve been going to School Committee and City Council meetings for years, and my concern has only deepened,” said Sinapi. “The main thing is the management of finances. I understand that the consolidation was needed...but after consolidation happened, consolidation happened twice, and they still needed more money. Someone’s doing something wrong somewhere.”
Sinapi was born and raised in Warwick, graduated from URI and Roger Williams, and practices law as part of Sinapi Law Associates. He’s also involved with the Greater Warwick Alliance and the Warwick Soccer Association, as well as the National Lawyers Guild.
About School Committee funding Sinapi said, “the mismanagement is so bad that giving them any money at all is very scary, as it’s almost guaranteed to not be spent properly.”
“I’m willing to sit, to listen, to learn and to take direction,” said Furtado. “I think my record stands for itself on the School Committee side. I’ve made decisions that have not been popular with most people, but they’ve been in the best interests of the city.”
The toughest decision Furtado said she had to make was consolidating schools. Due to an aging and shrinking population, the number of school-aged kids in Warwick has shrunk from almost 20,000 students in the 80s to less than 9,000 students today.
“I would rather spend the money that we were on buildings and maintenance and electricity and all those other things it takes to run schools and put it back into the classrooms for our students,” said Furtado.
“When my parents went to school here it was very different,” said Sinapi. “But by the time my siblings went here, it was in bad shape, and now my son’s in school during this heat wave and the grout on the tiles is oozing up at school. It’s a bad sign.”
Other issues that the candidates are passionate about include roads and sewers, as well as bringing new businesses into the city. Sinapi is concerned for seniors, while Furtado wants to improve relations within city departments, saying “we’re all here for the same reason.”
Both candidates support Mayor Solomon, saying they believe he has the experience to get the job done.
A recent feature of the race is negative campaigning directed towards Furtado. A flier distributed by “Concerned Citizens and Taxpayers of Warwick” lists a number of grievances with the financial decisions Furtado made as School Committee Chair.
“I’m not sure where it came from,” said Furtado. “I take exception to the falsehoods that are presented in it. In twelve years on the school committee I’ve taken my lumps from the two-by-fours and the baseball bats. It’s not a popular position, but I love this city and I want to give back.”
The winner of the primary will run unopposed in the General Election.