The Warwick School Committee approved Wednesday by a vote of 4-1 (Karen Bachus dissenting) the Warwick School Committee approved a $171.9 million budget for the FY19, an increase of $1.2 million from the superintendent’s recommended budget.
With this new figure in mind, the School Department is now asking for $130.5 million from the city, an increase in $8,145,000, a 6.6 percent increase. The budget has been shaped by a combination of cost increases resulting from contract agreements, reduction in state aid and the retention of positions that would have otherwise been cut more from the Warwick City Council when they go before them in late May, as reported during the budget hearing on Wednesday by finance director Anthony Ferrucci.
Contributing to this is a $575,000 loss in revenue from the state after the department learned that it would be enrolling 150 fewer general tuition students than expected. An additional cost of $650,000 comes from the school committee’s unanimous decision to restore 6.5 math interventionist specialists who were scheduled to be cut in the new budget.
“To not offer that to students...that is unconscionable,” said School Committee member David Testa, who introduced a motion to restore the positions through whatever means necessary, “That’s not a want, I think that’s a need.”
His motion was agreed upon unanimously by the school committee.
School Committee member Bachus tried to make a couple motions of her own – one to reinstate three reading interventionists who were cut due to the closing of three schools as part of the district’s consolidation efforts, and another to reinstate department head positions at the middle school level – but neither passed.
In their defense of a reduction in reading interventionists, chief academic officer Sheryl Rabbitt said that their current model has at least one reading interventionist in each school, and that increasing the number of students seen by the interventionist at one time has increased the total number of kids who can get help, as opposed to favoring one-on-one time.
“It’s not one-to-one but one-to-four, one-to-six. It’s groups of students that move in and out of intervention, and exit when they hit certain thresholds,” Rabbitt said. “It allows them to see more students throughout the year...Since this approach was implemented, the students at the upper grades have now been attended to, which wasn’t happening prior to this change of model.”
However, Bachus maintained that the reading interventionists needed more help in the schools.
“With all due respect I’ve spoken to a number of the reading specialists who say they’re just not getting to enough kids and they don’t have enough hours in the week to do what they need to do for these kids,” said Bachus.
Testa urged that it was important to leave the academic model consistent for at least a couple years to assess its efficacy before trying to change it once again.
“Whatever you do, if you don’t measure it then you don’t know if it is working or isn’t working,” he said. “This was also a cultural shift to some degree of how we did it before.”
Rabbitt agreed with this sentiment.
“Now that we will have two full years in this approach we will be able to tend to the measures against those trends,” she said.
Bachus then moved to reinstate guidance counselors at the elementary level, a fight that she has championed since the positions were removed from the budget and their responsibilities reassigned to school psychologists and vice principals throughout the district.
“Guidance counselors serve more functions than I think people realize,” she said. “The job the guidance counselors did with our kids was significant and it worked and we need them back.”
Bachus’ motion failed to garner a second from any other committee member. “Let the record show,” she said in response.
The FY19 includes a few key areas of difficulty contributing to a high ask from the city, most notably paying for the salary and step increases to teachers as mandated in the new collective bargaining agreement, a 2 percent decrease in the state’s funding formula towards Warwick in addition to funds lost from declining enrollment numbers and the ongoing debt service that the district must continue to pay from a 2006 bond to the tune of about $1.7 million.
“What does $1.7 million get us? It gets us 17 teachers, it gets us 900 Chromebooks, it gets us a capital reserve fund. There’s a lot of things we can get for $1.7 million, but right now we’re not getting that,” said Testa. “Those are dollars we can’t use for anything else, and everything else we can use it for is more important than what we’re using it for…It’s frustrating to say the least.”
Testa said he explored ideas of extending bus routes so that they could save money necessary for purchasing 10 additional buses at $80,000 apiece, but that was found to not be feasible. He said he promoted the idea of having the community pay for busing, but that was not allowed due to a prior Rhode Island court decision. He brought up how cutting the budget for fuel or raiding the insurance reserve fund were both unwise policies that wouldn’t help in the long run.
“My point in mentioning it is this is where we’re reduced to,” he said. “It’s embarrassing as a community to be the second biggest community, well, tied as the second biggest community in Rhode Island and have to be doing this.”
One member of the public agreed that the financial position was a problem in Warwick, especially in regards to what the state contributes, and called upon the school administration to try and do something about it.
“We need to stop arguing with the city for funds and we need to get to the State House and we need to lobby, and we need to find grants and we need to make it known that we are having these fiscal problems and these building problems and that we’re cutting important programs,” said Judy Cobden during public comment. “If you do not try, you’re not going to get an answer. Trying will get you somewhere, whether you get what you need or not, but it’s at least an attempt.”
The School Department is now awaiting word on when they will appear before the City Council to present their new budget and their updated request of $8,145,000 in contributions from the city. The request has gone to the mayor who must present his budget to the City Council by May. 15
“I think it's a logical ask for what they want to accomplish,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian on Friday.
School finance officer Anthony Ferrucci said that the state aid issue was a “huge issue” that the community has been dealing with, and that declining enrollment has been a noticeable trend going back at least five years.
“I think a lot of people want to point a finger and say it has something to do with the community, but all indications to us say it's just baby trends,” he said. “The current pattern of having children and how many children to a family, I think, is what's catching up with us.”
Correction from last week
In the Tuesday, April 17 edition of the Beacon, a story on a budget hearing for the schools held on Thursday, April 12 reported inaccurately that the FY19 budget included funding for 13 new Promethean Boards at each elementary library. That funding was actually cut by the superintendent to help balance the new budget.
Likewise, the story said that funding was included in the FY19 budget to continue the SIMS (Summer Induction for Middle School Students) program, however that funding was also recommended to be cut by the superintendent. The SIMS program will still run this summer leading up to the opening of school in the fall, but only because of a Title 3 grant. It is not budgeted for in proceeding years.