While a meeting was finally held between city officials from the Warwick City Council, Mayor Joseph Solomon and administrators from the Warwick School Department, there is still a long road ahead before the school department’s budgetary crisis can be considered solved.
“I think we're all on the same page where we want the best education for our students, adequate pay for the educators, great facilities to learn and at the most affordable cost to the taxpayers,” summarized Solomon following the meeting on Monday morning at City Hall. “I think we all know what we're faced with factually, it's a matter of balancing all those elements and doing what is best for the community based on the resources you have available.”
What the city and schools are “faced with” amounts to millions in additional funds still needed for the schools to be able to balance a budget for FY19. Originally, that gap amounted to $8.1 million when the Warwick School Committee first passed Superintendent’s recommended budget back in April. During budget hearings, the City Council allocated only $1.5 million in additional funding for the schools.
As a result, the schools have been forced to turn to drastic cuts to programming and staffing, even flirting with the idea of cutting the entirety of the spring and winter sports programs and attempting to receive waivers from the state department of education to be able to charge students for busing and sports, in addition to laying off 15 custodians, to try and close the shortfall.
“The meeting today gave the school department the opportunity to show the mayor and Council President [Steve Merolla], in detail, the extent of the cuts to the school department. Closing six schools in three years and nine schools since 2008 has allowed for savings, however, costs do continue to climb. The fact of the matter is city spending for schools is relatively the same as it was in 2010,” Thornton said via email on Monday, adding that funding from the city to the schools has increased by only $14,396 since 2010.
Solomon reiterated on Monday that the $1.5 million in additional money was found after much hard work from the council, who were tasked (along with Solomon) with combing through a budget left behind by former mayor Scott Avedisian in May that level funded the schools despite the obvious challenges facing the district and the city in the looming budget season.
Meanwhile, school department officials maintain that their ask for $8.1 million was not unreasonable in the face of rising costs, which includes mandates by the state such as paying for out of district programming and students attending charter schools, salary and pension costs increasing exponentially and decreased funding from the state overriding savings from declining enrollment and shuttering schools.
At Monday’s meeting, in what appeared to be an attempt at compromise, the schools reportedly lowered their request of the city from the remaining $6.6 million gap to around $5.3 million. Now it is up to Solomon and the City Council to try and figure out if getting to that number is possible, or if they can come up with a compromise of their own. For now, Solomon said he wouldn’t commit to something without knowing more information.
“I will not commit funds until I know what funds I have available to commit,” he said. “I walked away feeling positive that everyone is willing to work together to achieve that. To achieve that you look to the resources you have available and reasonable compromises that can occur, and that's how it comes together. We may have to examine our allocation to see where we can further tighten up if at all possible, but until we do that I can't commit to that at this point.”
On Friday, The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) officially denied all requests from the Warwick School Department to waive certain obligations in the hopes it could put the nearly $6 million in cost savings towards its budgetary deficit, which leaves a sizable gap that still needs to be filled without any discernible idea about where that money could come from within the school budget.
The response, delivered from RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner, was brief and simply indicated that the department, “lack[s] the legal authority to vary or waive requirements that are mandated by: (1) federal or state statutes; (2) federal regulations; or (3) regulations that are the ‘embodiment of statutory requirements.’”
The waivers requested by Superintendent Philip Thornton on behalf of the Warwick School Committee included several propositions that were, to put it lightly, unlikely to have been granted.
They including a request to charge $1 per day for busing students, charging students for sporting programs, eliminating school bus monitors, a waiver to not be forced to pay for students attending charter schools or for the transportation of students going out of district for certain services and a waiver to not pay for debt service for a school repair bond that was issued in 2006.
The letter from Wagner stated that: “...after careful consideration and review by RIDE’s legal office I am hereby denying each of the requests for 'alternatives and/or variances' made in your joint letter of July 17, 2018.”
Wagner reasoned that charging for busing would directly violate Rhode Island law, charging for sports would violate the state’s Basic Education Plan (BEP), eliminating transportation payments to students seeking out-of-district tuition and programming would violate state law, as would the elimination of bus monitors.
In regards to the waiver of $1.75 million in debt service that was to be paid this year by the schools, Wagner said this was the city’s issue to figure out, not the state’s, saying, “...the fact that 'Warwick is one of very few systems currently paying debt service' is a function of the Warwick City Charter and local ordinance.”
While the schools were undoubtedly holding out the hope that perhaps one of their waiver requests might be entertained by RIDE, they were not likely to be realized. However, in preparing for a potential Caruolo Action lawsuit against the city, the waiver requests were an important step to show a possible Superior Court judge that the schools sought other sources of additional funding before filing suit.
Superintendent Thornton said on Monday that an ongoing audit of the school department’s programs and fiscal practices could be complete by late August, which is another important step towards being able to file a lawsuit against a municipality for more funding.
Solomon is hopeful that a lawsuit isn’t the end result and that he left the meeting feeling optimistic that the two sides were prepared to work together towards a solution. However, he also said he would be prepared for a lawsuit if that unfortunately occurs.
“I think a lawsuit would not be a positive way of addressing this,” he told WPRO’s Tara Granahan following Monday’s meeting. “I would like to negotiate and work together as a team to try and work this out. Lawsuits cost money and I think that's a waste of funds we could be applying towards education.”
As for the school department’s next step, Thornton said that the he and the school committee would be calling for a special meeting early next week to discuss what to do next in executive session. He said that the meeting was one more step in the process towards hopefully getting to a resolution.
(With reports from John Howell)