School Committee passes $161 million revised budget
The Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 (Karen Bachus dissenting) last Tuesday to approve the revised school budget for Fiscal 18 as recommended by Superintendent Philip Thornton, which totals $161,795,442.
The budget includes a 3.1 percent reduction, totaling $5.22 million, from the budget proposal approved in April, which is the result of the loss of a potential $2.35 million incentive the schools could have received if the Warwick Teachers’ Union and school administration were able to come to terms on a new contract before the time to pass a new budget had come. No such contract agreement has been reached.
The reduction also stems from $1.52 million in salaries and benefits not being paid to 18 teaching positions that were cut, in part, due to expected reduction in revenues of $650,000. The revenue shortfall came as a result of a reduction in student enrollment and changing federal reimbursement rates, according to Anthony Ferrucci, Executive Director of Finance and Operations for Warwick Public Schools.
The remaining reductions come from $599,000 in adjustments to reflect the issuance of bidding contracts for projects to be completed during the 2017/18 school year and $749,000 in costs that the district will have to absorb, including $675,000 needed for school building improvements and maintenance across the city.
Cutting causes controversy
Although the budget was ultimately passed, it was done so with a caveat that the school committee would reconvene during their August meeting with ideas on how to trim other line items in order to find that $1.52 million to save the lost teaching positions, which include math and reading specialists, a team of four content teachers at Winman Jr. High and six elementary-level guidance counselors.
“We need these teachers. We need this compliment of professionals for our kids,” said Karen Bachus, generating a round of applause from many in the audience at the Toll Gate High School auditorium. “It’s all about education. It’s all about teaching.”
Chief Academic Officer Sheryl Rabbitt said that a new teaching model, which utilizes math and reading interventionists, along with a social worker, in place of traditional guidance counselors, was a financially and educationally responsible decision.
“We want to establish, at each of the buildings, the principal, the two reading interventionists, the math interventionists and the social worker,” Rabbitt said. “This team, that model, is a highly-effective design around academic work and social-emotional support in the elementary model...This is fiscally a solid recommendation that we would make otherwise.”
Darlene Netcoh, President of the Warwick Teachers’ Union, in response, presented a case in support of the guidance counselors’ value for elementary students.
“To eliminate guidance counselors from that team would be a huge mistake academically for the students,” Netcoh said, adding that eliminating an entire elementary department, such as guidance, was against the terms of the old contract. “Guidance counselors frequently serve as the point person for coordinating services for a student.”
In response to Rabbitt’s statement that guidance counselors at the elementary level were rare in her experience, and that the interventionist model has worked well for other districts, Netcoh was pointed in her reply.
“It doesn’t matter what other districts have done. I’m tired of hearing what other districts have done,” she said. “Warwick, for many years, was at the top of education in the state and now, due to new leadership, we have plummeted.”
School Committee member David Testa gave a measured summary of the situation.
“Maybe the discussion should be to find money to save as many [teaching positions] as we can,” Testa said. “I’m questioning how we’re going to do this. If you’re going to make the motion you have to find a million and a half. You can’t just say, we’ll do this and that, find the items and we’ll vote.”
Air conditioning for administrators stirs anger
Bachus vocally took issue with another provision of the budget, which included over $215,000 for school administration staff to move their operations to what was formerly Gorton Junior High School.
Included in that figure is $10,885 to make bathrooms ADA-compliant, $77,873 to make over 130 doors ADA-compliant and more secure (both of which are required by law due to the building changing uses from a school to offices), $33,799 to move furniture and, what Bachus took the most offense to, about $36,178 to provide window unit air conditioning to the offices for administrators.
“We’re in the business of education, not comfort,” Bachus said, again to applause. She added that the kids educated at Gorton went without ADA compliance or air conditioning, and that air conditioning was a luxury that could be addressed after all students in the district had access to it and was not a cost that should be put as a priority above saving the teaching positions that were cut.
Bachus went further, criticizing Ferrucci for listing the cost to renovate Gorton as “emergency building preparation,” because she said that it had been put on the agenda for the school committee last April but was never followed up with until this past meeting where it was suddenly listed as an emergency.
“This was not an emergency. And if this was an emergency on your [Ferrucci’s] part or on the superintendent’s part, then we have a very, very serious problem,” Bachus said. “This was talked about at the school committee in April and was supposed to be put into discussion for May. It never happened and it didn’t happen in June...I’m just very disappointed you kind of back-doored us with a non-emergency and tried to call it an emergency. Whoever did that needs to be slapped.”
In response to the criticism, Ferrucci said that the move to Gorton was slated to save about $230,000 in operation costs by moving out of the Warwick Avenue Administrative Building, Greene Elementary School and the annex at Warwick Veterans Junior High School. The school department will also receive 50 percent of the proceeds should the city sell the Warwick Avenue building, as is the intention.
Ferrucci also mentioned how the hot days of Rhode Island summers negatively affect productivity.
“The numbers of days that are effecting productivity in this district is what prompted the decision to do something because we need people to be productive,” Ferrucci said.
Terri Medeiros, school committee clerk, was candid in her defense of providing air conditioning at Gorton.
“It’s shameful that every student doesn’t have air conditioning. It’s shameful that every employee doesn’t have air conditioning,” she said. “I’m entitled to my opinion and I think everybody matters in this district. If you want [$1.5 million] for 18 teachers, help me find it line item by line item so we can replace it. We’re not going to just not move to Gorton and keep these three other buildings going. We just can’t do that. We’re just stuck. Unfortunately, we’re just stuck.”