Facing an approximately $7.7 million budgetary deficit for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1, Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus reported via Facebook that essentially everything was on the chopping block – including all school sports, clubs and programs such as mentoring.
“I am very sorry to bring you the devastating news that Mayor Joseph Solomon and the Warwick City Council effectively level funded our schools at the budget vote last evening,” she wrote in a post on June 1, following the city’s adopting of the budget on Friday, May 31. “This decision effectively cripples the school department and forces us to cut necessary staff and essential programs for our students.”
She posted a long list of cuts which “will have to be made,” and yet still only amounted to about $5 million, even after hypothetically eliminating all the following:
“All sports; All clubs; Technology – Chromebooks, computers; All new textbooks; Pension; All Teacher Training and [professional development]; Cut Teacher assistants; Cut maintenance personnel; 2nd shift custodians not restored; Cut Mentoring; Cut VOWS; Cut High school accreditation process; Cut (CCRI) graduation,” she wrote.
The schools requested an additional $7.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year to cover rising expenses, but they did not receive close to that. Schools requested a total budget of $173.6 million. The council approved $165.9 million. In place of the added $7.7 million in city funds the council allocated an added $508,000 to the schools and agreed to take on principal and interest debt stemming from a 2006 construction bond, which amounts to a $1.7 million expense from the city that will be reoccurring until the bond debt is eliminated. The city council also approved a $6 million release of funding from the $40 million school bond that passed via voters this past November.
Mayor Joseph Solomon said through a press release on Monday that he found the city’s appropriation to the school department to be “appropriate at this time,” and that he intends to extend negotiations with school representatives “as part of his ongoing efforts to improve the relationship between the City and the School Department and address issues of critical concern in Warwick’s educational system.”
“I am hereby extending to the School Department a continued mediation process that can assist us in determining how best to provide for the students, teachers and staff of our City and balance our ability to do so financially,” Solomon said in the release.
Solomon clarified on Monday that the negotiations would strictly pertain to fiscal challenges presented in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1, and would not pertain to the school’s current-year deficit of about $4 million. That deficit became the subject of a controversial mediator decision handed down in May, which removed the city from any fiscal responsibility and has subsequently been challenged legally regarding its solution of taking money from the school’s pension plan.
“The mediator award speaks for itself,” Solomon said in a call on Monday. “Everyone heard the same thing, everyone acted in good faith. All of the sudden over a 48-hour period everything started changing. I stand by the mediator's award and by the representations that were made in those mediation sessions.”
School superintendent Philip Thornton was troubled by what he perceived to be a purposeful attempt to confuse the issue through the release.
“The third paragraph is inaccurate and intentionally misleading,” he said on Monday of the release, referencing the paragraph that includes how the city has increased funding by $508,000, provided $1.7 million in principal and interest payments and $6 million in bond funding.
Thornton said that the city did not increase its allocation to the school department, but rather the schools received an additional allocation from state aid – and that the city’s contribution to the school department has only increased a little over $14,000 since 2010.
“The city has effectively level funded the schools since 2010,” he said.
Thornton said it was misleading for Solomon to rope the $1.7 million in principal and interest into the argument showcasing their support for the schools since that money only fills a known budgetary contingency that already wasn’t included in their budget need and didn’t contribute to the $7.7 million ask. He says including the school bond funding is also misleading because that money cannot be used for the general operating budget.
During their deliberations to pass the budget this past Friday, the Warwick City Council spoke at length about their decision to not increase the allocation to the schools beyond the figures proposed by Solomon in his original budget.
City Council President Steve Merolla delved into the sticky, continuously developing history surrounding the school department’s relationship with the city council, going back to last year’s budget hearings where school officials, including Thornton and finance director Anthony Ferrucci, asked for around $8.1 million from the city – which eventually wound up at a year-end deficit in the range of $4 million.
When the council instead increased the allocation by $1.5 million, the schools eventually filed a lawsuit against the city, which was ultimately dropped in February as a show of good faith from the new school committee. Merolla talked about how the city, in mediation talks with the schools, discovered the over-contributions beyond the actuary’s recommendations to the school’s pension fund, and how an independent CPA found around $3.5 million in potential savings for the school department.
Ferrucci has since challenged the methodology and conclusion of that CPA analysis, but regardless the situation seems to be indicative of a serious lack of trust between the two sides.
“To listen to a certain individual tell us in the mediation room that they were proud of over-funding their pensions more than what was required by the actuaries, while they were not washing bathrooms and while they took away money from the mentorship program was infuriating,” Merolla said, speaking of Ferrucci. “It was infuriating. We didn't even get into the other issues on the list that the accountant identified.”
Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi was more pointed in his criticism of the school department and Ferrucci.
“We don't have someone from the school department giving us numbers that we can trust. It's unfortunate,” he said. He added prior to the vote approving the budget that, “I think the council is doing the best they can given the information, or lack thereof, that we're getting from the budget officer from the school department…I think our hands are somewhat tied given the current circumstances.”
Merolla took a wait and see approach regarding the school budget on Friday.
“I'm comfortable with where we are and I'll assume that we'll see what transpires over the next few months,” he said.