The Warwick School Committee approved a revised balanced budget 4-1, with Karen Bachus dissenting, on Thursday, Jan. 18 after a contentious meeting with the Warwick City Council the previous day, where they ultimately received a $3 million allotment to help settle a budgetary shortfall created by retroactive pay increases given to the teachers as part of new collective bargaining agreements signed in November.
Following the allotment by the council, the school department identified about $1.58 million in cuts to the budget to make up for a total of $4,586,801 in added salary and fringe benefit costs created by the 4.6 percent actualized pay raise (which includes last year and the current year).
These cuts came from a piecemeal strategy of identifying line items, which were at or below projected levels of need at this point in the year from the last three school years.
“The essence is, if they haven’t spent it and they haven’t put a purchase order in to encumber it for the remaining balance of the year, and the dollars that are there are equal to or close to what we spent in the past,” said school finance director Anthony Ferrucci. “If there were funds available above and beyond that target, those were our first areas to cut.”
While the department may run over budget on any, or none, of these line items as a result of the cuts, they will be able to address any such issues when they revisit the budget in March – and the cuts are necessary now because the department, by law, must operate on a balanced budget.
To proactively make up for going over budget with overtime costs to conduct school repairs due to weather and building issues (which accounted for an additional $82,236), and to begin chipping away at the needed cuts, the department recommended cutting $220,000 in non-contractually obligated funds towards paying substitute teachers. An additional $100,000 was cut from a line item meant to pay a stipend for teachers attending a February professional development event, due to a lower projected attendance than budgeted.
With about $1.3 million in cuts still necessary, some notable line items affected included:
The majority of the cuts remaining were between $5,000 and $10,000 each. This included $10,000 of an available $50,000 in funds for therapists operating out of the Sherlock Center at Rhode Island College (to aid vision-impaired students), the entirety of the remaining $13,000 budgeted for paying non-staff psychologists for services when staff psychologists aren’t available and $10,000 of an available $20,000 for tutoring services for kids who are hospitalized for a prolonged period of time.
Although cuts to these line items in particular drew heavy criticism from teachers and members of the city council, they will not actually prevent or halt these services from being offered to students, as some feared.
“Legally, any service that a student is required to receive per their IEP I have to provide, period,” said director of special services Dr. Jennifer Connolly.
“At its last meeting, the Warwick School Committee was able to make many strategic cuts that do not directly affect students," said Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers' Union, in a statement. "Hopefully next year there will be no public relations budget, and the school committee will cull excess positions from its bloated administrative staff to eliminate redundancies that currently exist.”
Ferrucci expressed sorrowfully that, while the cuts passed by the committee would not immediately impact the students in terms of not being able to purchase a specific piece of equipment or run a program, it instead harms the long-term philosophy and goals of the administration.
For example, the $400,000 cut from technology software and hardware is money that, if not cut, would go towards developing an emergency disaster recovery plan for the city’s computer data, and updating network security.
“That’s the sad part. We have a balanced budget and have enough room to accommodate anything we have to do,” he said. “But all the vision and the future plans we were talking about trying to achieve is now, in my mind, being set on the shelf for the moment until we can find the resources to address those opportunities. We’re losing the future vision versus something hardcore, in our hands today.”
One area which may directly impact the students down the road, however, comes from $250,000 cut from the line item used for purchasing new Chromebooks, and Ferrucci said that they will have to tackle this issue come the spring once they have a better idea of their budget surpluses and flexibility regarding utilities costs following the end of winter.
Ferrucci thanked the city council and the members of the administration who helped identify the necessary cuts and close the budgetary shortfall.
“I want to say thank you in advance, first and foremost, to the city council for the appropriation of $3 million. We wish they would have completely embraced what we needed, but we’re grateful for at least the $3 million,” said Ferrucci. “I have to thank the budget managers and the superintendent for their efforts in identifying the million and three [$1.3 million] that least impacts students and puts us in a position to manage a budget through the end of the year.”
School committee chairwoman Bethany Furtado praised the selection of cuts for having no immediate significant impact on the schools, and once again expressed her frustrations regarding the level of funding provided to the schools, but she did not lay any blame on the teachers for fighting for retroactive pay increases.
“I believe it was fair,” she said of the terms of the new contracts. “It was hard work, it was a lot of compromise on both sides. The bottom line is, as the superintendent read into the record, we’re not even funded now, with the moneys that we received last night, at 2010 levels.”
“As the city council knows, as we know as homeowners and citizens, things increase. Your costs go up when you’re stagnant. It costs more to run the bus, it costs more to keep the lights on. Health care is more. All of these things, FICA and all of these taxes we pay, it increases. We’ve tried to reduce and consolidate as best we can,” she continued. “All of these cuts…we spread it around where it would be as least impactful on our staff and our students.”