In an attempt to reach a resolution outside of a court room – and wary of time restraints concerning capital construction reimbursements for projects scheduled for this summer – the Warwick School Committee voted Tuesday night to withdraw their pending lawsuit against the city that was filed shortly before Christmas last year which sought around $4.9 million to fill their budgetary gap.
However, that decision hinges on a few key conditions to be met by the city.
The agreement would rely on the city and schools coming together for a decision on how to handle the roughly $5 million budget deficit through mediation – or arbitration if it goes that way – that would be binding. Also, the city would be required to hear the school’s case to release bond funds at the next available meeting, and three to four mediation meetings need to be scheduled by Feb. 12, otherwise the committee will authorize legal counsel to re-file the suit on Feb. 14.
“We're just hoping to sit down with the city and work this out in the best way for everyone concerned, our students and our citizens,” said school committee chairwoman Karen Bachus. “I believe this was really the only way to go in order to try and forge a good relationship with the city and give our students and everyone what they need.”
Through various sources, it had come out that the city was refusing to negotiate further with the schools regarding the deficit and had been keeping their request to release bond funds for needed capital improvement projects off the city council docket while the threat of a lawsuit loomed. The city had requested the suit be dropped without prejudice, which the committee agreed to do under the aforementioned conditions.
“I said, if the city wants us to drop the lawsuit without prejudice, we'll do that,” Bachus said. We just need to make sure we put everything together quickly because time is really of the essence in this situation.”
As reported in this paper, the schools face a critically short time window to get approval for capital funding of various construction projects during the summers of 2019 and 2020, which would include multiple fire alarm replacements and roof repairs, among other improvements such as ADA-compliant playgrounds at schools that had long been promised such accommodations.
If the bond funds are not released until after February, the timing of those projects would be thrown off and would likely push their completion off by a year or even more, creating a domino effect that would render the schools unable to receive state housing aid reimbursement for projects completed outside the mandated five-year window.
Now the two sides have an accelerated time frame to find a mediator, schedule multiple mediation sessions and then reach a decision on what money the schools will receive. Regardless of what decision is made, it likely will not solve a budgetary problem for the schools that runs well beyond the current need. By law, the schools cannot operate without a balanced budget.
Unfortunately, the schools are facing another large financial encumbrance next year of about $3 to $5 million due to the negotiated raises for teachers, which also includes a raise for the following year. Closing the current financial gap of $4.9 million does nothing to address these increasing expenses but will have to be addressed next year regardless.
The budgetary deficit has been a constantly shifting target, as the schools have made cuts and received a $1.5 million infusion from the city council during budget season last year. It once stood as $8.1 million, then went down to $6.6 million and has now settled at around $4.9 million since line items have been closed out from last year and final numbers have come in.
Mayor Joseph Solomon said on Wednesday that he was optimistic that the two sides could come to a resolution and restore critical resources to the students. He has mentioned custodians and the Mentor RI program specifically in the past as two top priorities to restore.
“Our resources are limited. Their demand has come down. If we can bring things closer, we can hopefully restore things that need to be restored,” Solomon said.
Solomon said he was pleased to find out the school committee had dropped the suit.
“The decision to drop the suit was, I think, the right decision,” he said. “I think the suit was filed prematurely, it was filed without a performance audit that should be done if they want to go in that direction. I'm not really sure that we need to incur all these additional costs for lawyers, et cetera. Maybe we can use those funds and apply it towards the disputed amount of funding – I think that would be a better utilization of that.”
When asked of the oft-repeated $1.75 million figure was still on the table – a number Solomon offered the schools last summer to settle the remaining principal and interest payments for the school’s 2006 bond of $25 million – Solomon said he never took it off the table, and that he would work with all parties involved to come up with the right solution.
“It behooves all of us to try to come to an amicable and affordable solution for everybody, and that's my goal to try to achieve with them,” he said. “I'm glad that this school committee withdrew what the other school committee filed two weeks before they left office.”
When asked if the school committee would indeed re-file the suit if the city didn’t fulfill the requirements of their resolution, Bachus said that it would be “the last thing that I want to do” but that they would be faced with the reality if the city didn’t cooperate.
“I think everybody wants to do the right thing by the schools,” she said. “I know the mayor and council are thinking positively and want the best for our students. I look forward to creating a good strong trusting relationship with them where we can work together as separate entities.”
(With reports from John Howell)