Warwick school personnel are gearing up for a lawsuit against the city, but staying open to continuing negotiations regarding their lingering budgetary issues.
“We are waiting for a time to meet,” said School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus. “I talked to the mayor and he’s trying to have his people put something together.”
However, as opposed to last year – when the newly-elected school committee, which welcomed three new members and appointed Bachus as the chair, dropped the lawsuit brought forth by the former school committee that sought more funding against the city in order to give mediation efforts a chance – Bachus said this time, the schools will not be giving that benefit of time to the city.
“We have to be ready in case we need to do that,” she said of filing suit.
In order to do that, the school committee would need to first solicit bids and choose an individual or entity to conduct an operational and fiscal audit of the Warwick school district. Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci said that this bidding process ends Thursday at 9 a.m. and hopefully the school committee will be able to select their auditor by their meeting that same evening.
Also, the district would be required to send waiver requests to the state Department of Education seeking relief from certain educational mandates, such as the Pathways Program that provides tuition to students who leave their home district to attend technical programs in other municipalities. The cost for that program alone was approximately $1.25 million as of the most recent budget.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because the school department already jumped through these hoops last year in preparation to file suit against the city – another financially nightmarish journey that went from an $8 million ask of the city, a subsequent allocation of $1.5 million, painful cuts that included school custodians and programming such as Mentor RI and, finally, a filed lawsuit that sought $4.9 million from the city that was subsequently dropped.
This time around, the situation has only gotten more dire. The schools presented a need of $7.7 million to the city, to which they received no actual additional contribution from city property tax funding. The city did agree to shoulder $1.75 million in principal and interest payments from a 2006 school bond and the state pitched in about $500,000 additional over last year, but the city’s allocation remained flat from last year.
Since then, schools were forced to make about $7.7 million in cuts to balance their budget. This included 46 different items, including the district’s entire sports budget, its planned new math curriculum, 10 teaching assistants in specifically co-taught first and second grade classrooms and textbooks.
They are also headed into the end of the FY19 fiscal year with an approximately $4 million budget deficit, which means the Rhode Island Auditor General will be requesting a plan to shore up that problematic fiscal gap – and although the options for tackling the deficit are apparent (additional funding from the city; the establishing of unlikely surpluses in future years; or a successful Caruolo Action suit against the city), nobody can be certain which of those methods will materialize.
“I don’t have an answer to that at this point,” Dennis Hoyle, Auditor General, said bluntly on Monday.
The narrative that has caught the most attention regarding the financial crisis has been the elimination of sports, and Mayor Joseph Solomon has made it abundantly clear that his goal is to ensure that sports and after-school programming runs on schedule by the time school begins in September. In fact, he all but promised students who stormed his office last week that he would be saving the sports programs.
There is a large concern with this line of thinking, however. First, Solomon has no ability to dictate how the school department spends its money. And going along with that, the school department – and Bachus noted herself – that the top priority items that need to be restored should more funding become available is not necessarily sports programming.
“We have to bring back academics and things like student assistance counselors before we can bring back sports. I’m not sure what he’s thinking,” she said. “Hopefully he intends to help us do that.”
According to financial documents prepared by the school department, the district would need about $4 million before it would be able to reinstate sports and the 16 items listed as higher priorities.