As a heavy summer rainstorm pounded the roof of the Warwick Veterans Middle School auditorium Tuesday evening, the Warwick School Committee poured over line item after line item looking for any unnecessary fat to trim from their FY19 budget, as they faced an approximately $1.5 million budgetary gap that required closing under state law.
By the end of the night, a balanced budget was indeed reached and approved by the committee, but it would be more accurate to report that a budget was “hypothetically” reached, as there are more than $5 million worth of assumptive reductions that may not actually be possible to realize.
Before delving into the bigger picture, the committee was able to close the $1.5 million gap by voting to not fill multiple positions they had originally budgeted for, including an elementary social worker and four library clerks at the secondary level. They also slashed the entirety of the unencumbered professional development budget, amounting to over $100,000.
The committee also cut about $300,000 in equipment and services, including $80,000 worth of floor waxing supplies, $30,000 worth of library books and the entirety of the $104,000 set aside to enable Mentor Rhode Island to work with the schools.
Even with these cuts, a $570,000 shortfall remained, which brought winter and spring sports back onto the chopping block for the second time. Once again, committee member at large David Testa put forth the motion to save sports from being slashed, which was ultimately passed with the support of Chairwoman Bethany Furtado and vice president Eugene Nadeau.
Since the $570,000 for sports was reinstated, to balance the budget finance director Anthony Ferrucci accounted for the deficit in a category known as “contingencies.” This essentially gives the school department the ability to balance the budget without having a definite source for the money yet.
The hope is that this unfunded contingency can be covered in one fell swoop from a method that is sure to generate even more controversy in the coming weeks – a proposed 1 percent cut to salaries from both school administrators and members of the Warwick Teachers’ Union, which would save about $900,000 according to Thornton.
Union president Darlene Netcoh declined to comment on the proposal to reduce salaries by 1 percent, as she hadn’t received anything officially in writing from the school committee in regards to the request as of Wednesday afternoon.
Additionally, the school department is hopeful they can secure waivers from the Rhode Island Department of Education to unburden themselves from certain expenses, including requests for the district to not have to pay $690,000 for the state Pathways program and to see if they could get a special waiver to be able to start charging students a $1 per day fee to ride the bus and start charging for extracurricular activities, as Massachusetts does. Those requests were sent out Wednesday by Superintendent Philip Thornton and the state must respond in 10-15 business days.
Another cut that is not guaranteed to be possible is the school department’s decision to no longer pay $1.75 million of principal and interest payments stemming from a 2006 bond. While they have cut the figure from the budget, the city may fight the issue and the state could intervene to decide who is responsible. That may also wind up in a legal dispute, as the school department insists the bond charged the municipality with paying principal and interest.
Other expenses cut from the budget, like cutting 15 custodians, were fought by school committee clerk Karen Bachus through a motion to restore them but did not garner a second to reach an official vote.
“These are some of the lowest paid positions in the system and they do some of the most important work; keeping our schools clean and disease free,” Bachus said. “I just don’t think it's going to work without them.”
Other members on the committee stressed that nobody is in favor of the cuts now coming before the committee, which were necessitated in the wake of a $6.6 million shortfall after the Warwick City Council voted to award the schools $1.5 million of an $8.1 million ask by the schools. The schools argued that rising costs and slashed state contributions offset savings from declining enrollment and the closing of schools, however the council was not moved to provide more funding.
“It's an unenviable position that this committee is in, that this district is in and that our employees are in,” said Furtado. “I've never seen anything like this. I'm not really sure where else we can go. We've turned over every rock, every table, and it's dollars and dimes here and there.”
Despite Bachus going line by line for over an hour over budget items she sought clarification on, Ferrucci was able to provide exact dollar amounts for what was already tied up in projects and what couldn’t be cut further. Despite hers and the committee’s efforts, the only non-sports program restored through cuts was $20,000 to save the Volunteers of Warwick Schools (VOWS) program, which was accomplished by slashing the Mentor Rhode Island budget entirely, rather than just by half as originally proposed.
“Ms. Bachus's list of questions has certainly proven to me that there isn't one penny here, and I fear that some of these things we're asking about will possibly have repercussions some time during the year,” said committee member at large Terri Medeiros.
“There's a reckoning coming and if we don't think that's going to happen we're kidding ourselves,” said Testa. “It may get uglier before it gets better or it may just get ugly period. For me, and I think I speak for the five of us up here, we will scratch, fight and claw for every penny we can get...As it stands right now, it's just not there.”
A meeting Furtado had tried to schedule between Mayor Joseph Solomon, City Council President Steve Merolla and the city’s finance department to hash out possible courses of action was at first delayed from Thursday to Friday and then, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, was cancelled “until further notice.” Courtney Marciano, press secretary for Solomon, said that the meeting was actively being rescheduled.
Committee members urged people to reach out to the members of the city council and the mayor’s office to come to the table and work with the school department to see if there is anything to be done to help the fiscal situation.
“I'm praying that anybody who has an email address will write to the city and ask them to please be part of our team because we just want to work with them,” Medeiros said.