Mayor Joseph Solomon reiterated Wednesday morning that the city is committed to ensuring that sports programming continues uninterrupted during the 2019-20 school year, which at this time is in jeopardy of being cut due to the school department’s projected $7.7 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.
Solomon said he had set up a “tentative” request for the two sides to meet and set parameters for mediation to discuss that deficit, but that he was waiting to hear back from the schools. Superintendent Philip Thornton said on Wednesday he had indeed received the request, but deferred to School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus as to whether or not the schools would be acquiescing to that request. Bachus did not return a text message as press time approached Wednesday.
“We want to get this thing going,” he said. “One of the first things I would like to discuss was our plan going forward as to our after school sports and things of that nature from the city’s point of view.”
Solomon has said in recent days that he is exploring the option of having the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation take over responsibilities including the maintenance of school sports facilities – which the city owns – which he believes could save costs and help save any sports programming from being subject to cuts.
“We can do the fields, and that frees up school personnel to do other things for the school, whether it be building maintenance, custodial or other duties,” Solomon said. “These are duties they were performing before so there’s a direct correlation and benefit to parks and recreation taking over some of those activities. That’s what my plan is to gear up and do, and I’ve spoken to [parks and recreation director] Mr. [James] Scott and that’s what I plan on presenting to the school department as we go forward. I think it’s a win-win for both the taxpayers and the schools.”
However, there may be a battle on the horizon regarding this approach with the Warwick Independent School Employee (WISE) Union, which is the group that includes workers who currently maintain the fields and sports facilities for schools.
In a letter to the editor written by WISE Union president Mary Townsend, she asserts that such an approach would violate the labor union’s collective bargaining agreement.
“Mayor Solomon appears to be determined to solve financial problems in the City of Warwick on the backs of Warwick Public Schools' employees,” she writes in the letter. “Mayor Solomon appears to be lowering his standards of governance by attempting to replace Warwick Public School workers with City workers.”
“RI Council 94 is prepared to stand with us to protect our jobs and benefits, and most of all our students and staff that rely on the work we do to prepare and support our schools as places of education and learning,” she continued. “In conclusion, any outsourcing of our work to any other entity, including the City of Warwick, would violate our contract. We are prepared to exercise our contractual rights to continue to do the work that we have always done for the students and staff of Warwick Public Schools.”
Solomon said he had not received this correspondence from the WISE Union, and he wasn’t aware of a specific contractual provision within their contract that would create such a conflict.
“Not knowing their contracts, I don’t really want to comment on their contract not knowing their contract. I’m not getting into the union aspect that Mary Townsend is presenting because of course I’m not privy to it. I’m getting into the perfunctory duties of parks and recreation to maintain those facilities that are, technically, our city facilities,” he said. “Now, employee-wise, I’m not telling them what to do with their employees. I don’t profess to know their contract. That’s entirely up to them and maybe that’s why I’m not privy to any correspondence that you’ve received. It’s outside my realm.”
Solomon said the city hadn’t ascertained how much it would cost for the city to pick up the costs of maintaining the athletic facilities, but that “we have the abilities to do what we have to do.” He stressed that everyone has the same goal of saving sports programming in mind.
“It’s something that both myself and the city council feel very passionate about. And if there has to be some adjustment within the budget then so be it,” he said. “But the thing is, after school sports will remain in place. And those on the council and in the mayor’s office and I believe most of the school committee members believe in that goal. So, let’s go positive and not negative. I’m not looking to challenge labor contracts or anything of that nature. I’m just looking to keep something necessary and good in place.”
Parks and recreation director James Scott said that better collaboration between the city and the school department in regards to sports would have benefits for everybody.
“If parks and schools could coordinate a little better, we’ll be able to align some of the existing programs in the city, find niches where we need to supplement or create new programs and sort of support that whole continuum from [kindergarten] to high school and then add some activities for after, as people move further on in life,” he said.
Solomon said that the goal was not for the city to usurp the school department’s authority, but simply to better utilize resources and ensure the sports programs are able to run uninterrupted.
“I see the city and parks and rec playing a greater role in that area. But that doesn’t mean we’re taking over the sports themselves,” he said. “No one is looking to take over that aspect of it. We’re just looking to mitigate the expenses of keeping this program in place and being reassured that it will remain in place.”