The Warwick School Department and city of Warwick continue to be at odds regarding the means to solve budgetary deficits for the fiscal year that officially ended on June 30 and the one that began on Monday.
Worse, the two sides appear to not be on the same page following a press release that was sent out and co-signed by Superintendent Philip Thornton and School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus on Monday afternoon.
“The School Committee has been advised by the Mayor that the City will no longer participate in mediation over the 2018-2019 School Year budget, nor will he entertain any mediation for the 2019-2020 budget other than sports and clubs,” the release reads.
However, Solomon said during a phone interview on Monday that this was wholly inaccurate, even “disingenuous.”
Solomon said he was contacted by Bachus on Friday but was unable to respond as he was at dinner. He said he planned on responding to her following his return from attending a funeral on Monday. However, when he returned to his office, he found the release on his desk – and much to his surprise it indicated he had cut off the possibility of mediation for the year going forward.
“The last I heard was the attorneys are going back and forth to select a mediator,” he said. “I don’t know where that [statement in the release] originated from, but it's grossly inaccurate.”
Nevertheless, the release from the schools states the mayor’s “position” would require the School Committee to illegally withdraw $4 million from its private pension fund to cover the approximately $4 million deficit for FY19, which it has been directly advised not to do by a tax attorney. That opinion was further parroted by Auditor General Dennis Hoyle in a letter to both sides sent out in June.
The release states that “such a withdrawing is illegal and would result in full re-payment of the monies, plus interest and penalties.” The aforementioned opinion from an attorney consulted with by the School Committee concluded that a withdraw from the pension fund “cannot be made without incurring ‘financial penalty or adverse tax consequences’” in violation of the federal Internal Revenue Code of 1986.
As he has in the past, Solomon disagrees with the notion that withdrawing from the pension fund would be illegal. That approach was reached through mediation that commenced last year and concluded this spring, but since the mediation award was written, the schools have maintained that they did not agree to the terms as portrayed by the city and by mediator Vincent Ragosta.
“There is nothing illegal in his [Ragosta’s] conclusion,” he said. “There may be penalties the school department wasn’t aware of that may be short term, long term, or there may be none. They indicated that they did that in the past, but there is nothing illegal.”
Thornton said the school department would be listening to the advice of the tax attorney, and school officials have been provided no feasible alternative from the city on how to handle the lingering $4 million deficit.
“The mayor’s office has not given us any legal foundation on how we could do this,” he said.
Solomon said the FY19 deficit was “yesterday’s news” and that he was focused on dealing with the budget going forward – a budget that has seen $7.7 million in cuts, which has resulted in all sports and after school activities getting chopped.
Not only that, the release notes, but also all money for textbooks; all teaching assistants for grades one and two; a reduction of custodial hours by 12 percent; all middle and high school assistance counselors; four maintenance positions; 90 percent of the technology hardware budget; and all professional development and workshops for teachers.
“These cuts are devastating to the district and the community,” the release states. “We implore the Mayor to come to the table to discuss the budget for both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 for the benefit of the students, employees and all Warwick constituents.”
Solomon reiterated on Monday the city was committed to saving school sports through either a budget allotment or by taking over some services. The mayor’s office sent out a release in response to the school department’s on Monday afternoon as well.
“As we prepare to mediate the FY19-FY20 budget, my priorities will continue to be that of the schoolchildren, and the sports and extracurricular activities that they deserve,” it reads. “I will not allow the emotions of our students, parents, faculty or staff to be used as pawns as these discussions proceed.”
However, this stance is what Thornton said he takes issue with, believing that Solomon is “narrowing the scope” of negotiations for the current fiscal year as being restricted to only after school sports and activities, when there is much more at stake than only those items. For context, school sports encompasses about $1.36 million of the overall $7.7 million in cuts made in June.
“We can’t limit the scope of the conversation to just sports and clubs,” Thornton said. “While those two items are important, educational items certainly need to be a part of the conversation as well.”
Solomon said on Monday that he was still committed to finding a solution through mediation – saying it should be called “Mediation II.”
“Let’s select a mediator and go forward with Mediation II for the benefit of the schools and students and everyone involved,” he said.