Originally scheduled to appear before the Warwick City Council during their Wednesday night meeting, the Warwick School Committee has requested that the appearance occur during the council’s meeting on Sept. 5 instead in order to continue discussions regarding the budgetary issues plaguing the department.
The committee requested the continuance last Thursday due to the impending release of two audits of the school department’s operations – one regarding the programmatic setup of the system and one regarding how efficiently the district operates financially. The committee believes it is in the best interest of both its own body and the City Council to wait until this information is available for review prior to continuing the conversation regarding the budget.
City Council President Steve Merolla granted the continuance and approved the school committee to appear during the Sept. 5 meeting.
“We appreciate how quickly the Council President responded to our request and, after further consideration, it makes the most sense to wait until we have all of the information regarding the program audit and financial audit before asking to be heard,” said School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado on Monday in a text message.
Furtado said that the audits should be completed “in the next few weeks,” which would give both the School Committee and City Council some time to review the conclusions made by both consultants prior to the City Council’s meeting on Sept. 5. The council reverts back to a twice-monthly meeting schedule in September, so they will have an additional meeting on Sept. 17 as well.
The school department and city council – along with Mayor Joseph Solomon when he sat as Council President prior to becoming mayor this May – have been at odds in regards to what was originally a $8.1 million ask from the school department to offset rising costs and declining enrollment, combined with pension and salary expenses and lowered revenue from the state.
The City Council, during budgetary appropriations, provided $1.5 million of that ask after budget hearing where some members called into question the department’s integrity and ability to control their budget, leaving the schools to grapple with a $6.6 million deficit.
As a result, major cuts have been made that, the schools argue, has impacted their ability to deliver an education to the children of Warwick in line with the state’s Basic Educational Plan (BEP). These cuts have included the max number of teachers possible, 15 custodians and janitorial supplies, funding for programming such as Mentor Rhode Island and has forced the school administrators to send waivers to the state for certain mandates (which haven’t succeeded) and flirted with cutting funding for sports.
One possible route for the schools to receive more funding is a lawsuit. The auditors hired to prepare reports are necessary legwork for that to be possible. However, in response to this possible liability, the city has been seemingly open to negotiate with the schools to find a more amicable alternative. Last week they offered $1.75 million in additional funding to cut down some of the deficit, which they argue would amount to 40 percent of the $8.1 million ask – a figure Solomon maintains was completely unfeasible.
However, Superintendent Philip Thornton called this gesture merely a “good start,” but held firm that it doesn’t change the nature of the hole the school department finds themselves in. The next meeting between the two government bodies will set the tone for where this situation goes next.