By the time all business had been handled and everyone who wanted a chance to speak at the podium was heard, Ward 5 City Councilman Ed Ladouceur did not get to bang his gavel to adjourn the finance committee meeting, of which he sits as chairman, until 10:19 p.m.
The meeting began at five.
For the preceding five hours, Ladouceur and fellow councilmembers were subject to an onslaught of public participation that is rarely, if ever, seen inside Warwick City Hall. The subject that brought more than 200 people, mostly high school students, to a city finance meeting with summer right around the corner and final exams on the horizon? The very real threat of the school department lacking the funding to run all sports and afterschool programs if their current budget outlook does not improve.
Loud outbursts of applause followed over a dozen students, teachers and taxpayers who took to the podium to express their frustration and disapproval that the schools would not have enough money to fund sports programming given their budget contribution from the city in the FY20 budget that was approved last week. The schools asked for $174 million and got about $166 million instead.
“We are not all rich and we cannot all pay for college,” said Madison Clark, a freshman, three-sport varsity athlete at Toll Gate High School. “If you take away sports, you take away our opportunities.”
But it’s not just sports and programming that is threatened by the school department deficit. The school department insists that figure sits at around $7.7 million for the upcoming school year – with more than half of that attributed to contractually obligated salary and benefits increases for teachers and school staff (but not top level administrators or principals, as those raises have already been cut).
The reality, as described by School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus – who helped generate the torrent of attendance after posting a Facebook update regarding the budget situation – is that everything, from all professional development for teachers, to second shift custodians, to teaching assistants and maintenance staff, to mentoring and the parent volunteer group VOWS, is on the chopping block if more money is not allocated.
“If nothing changes, we'll have to file a Caruolo,” Bachus said on Wednesday, referencing the Caruolo Act, which allows Rhode Island school systems to sue their municipalities under the notion of inadequate funding. “The mayor is entrenched in his position that we don’t need the money.”
Mayor Joseph Solomon sent out a press release earlier this week that indicated he would be open to continuing mediation with the school department to discuss the upcoming budget, and methods of addressing the deficit. He also said through the release that he believed the level of funding to schools is adequate.
“I’m open,” he said of meeting in mediation. “I’m not shutting the door on anything. We all have the same interests at heart.”
However, Solomon did in effect shut the door on providing any further assistance to the schools to address their current year deficit of $4 million, saying that he believes the mediator award that suggested the schools take $4 million from their private pension plan resolved that issue.
“I stand behind the mediator, as I think most parties in that room did,” he said. “That’s behind us.”
But Superintendent Philip Thornton does not agree.
“The school district has an opinion from an attorney that specializes in this area of law. Based on that opinion it would be illegal to do what the mayor is proposing,” he said on Wednesday. “This year is not resolved…Even if we were to use the pension funds, which is not legal, it would create a $4 million structural deficit, which is not good budget practice.”
No talks have been scheduled between the city and the school department at the time of this writing.
At one point during the finance committee meeting, Ladouceur got up from his seat and walked with the microphone, attempting to calm the frenzied atmosphere that had been building for hours and resulted in multiple outbursts from the audience and disruptions that derailed the agenda items on the docket. Ladouceur emphasized the importance of allowing members of the public to have a chance to speak, but also spoke of his obligation to maintain the open meetings law and only address docketed items.
“It's incredible that we have so many people here attending this meeting tonight,” he told the audience. “I understand your frustration. Believe me, as a council member, I share that frustration. And at some point, we can have that conversation about why I share your frustration. I feel as though some of the feelings are misguided.”
Prior to Ladouceur’s pacifying speech, City Council President Steve Merolla stirred the crowd up with a display of his own. He told the audience, many of whom were vocally raking the council for failing to fund the school sports program, that he had a proposal to infuse the schools with $6 million in infrastructure funding.
“What do you think of that?” he asked, receiving thunderous applause as an answer. “What they're not telling you is we just did that last Friday for you.”
He then repeated the tactic by proposing to increase the school department’s allocation by $2.25 million over last year – a calculation that includes $1.75 million in funding to cover principal and interest payments for a 2006 school bond and $500,000 in increased state aid that is going to the schools for the next year.
“What they're not telling you is we did that Friday night too,” Merolla said.
Bachus then approached the podium to respond to Merolla’s statements.
“This $6 million for infrastructure improvements that the council president spoke of just a couple minutes ago, are just that. They are for the bond. They are not for operating expenses. You need to understand that,” she said. “In the past decade, the city has received 99.97 percent of the tax increases. The school department has gotten less than 1 percent. I rest my case.”
Many who spoke during public comments asked for more cohesiveness between the city and the schools.
“The only people that are going to suffer are the residents and the students,” said resident Patrick Mooney. “The city council can fight with the school department and the school department can fight with the city council, but at the end of the day if the sports program does get cut, who's out? Neither one of you. It'll be the students.”
Warwick School Committee Vice Chair Judy Cobden lamented the way she perceived the school committee was being unfairly criticized for fiscal irresponsibility, as the school committee went over every individual line item looking for ways to cut unnecessary expenses during their budget preparation in April.
“All I heard was how you want to work together and we're going to go forward and make this city great. And you guys aren't working with us,” she said. “You didn't even come to our meetings. We come to yours. And it would have helped, because you would have seen in detail what every [line] item is.”
“But I don't see it,” she continued. “I don't see the gelling that I heard the whole time I ran, and I'm really disappointed with it. As a new school committee member, all I heard was we're all going to do good things together, and I even heard it down to the night I got inaugurated by the mayor. And I don't see it. We need the money. This is not a joke. We need the money.”
But if the responses from some council members were any indication, more money may be a non-starter.
"You don't get anywhere by throwing more money at it," said Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe, a member of the finance committee. "You need to cut the costs and you need to figure out how to do it right. They [the school department] haven't figured that out. So now they need to go somehow figure it out and figure out how to save your sports, save summer school and save what is left of the Warwick School Department without saying 'Everyone else is to blame, they're not giving us the money.' Because we can throw all the money we want at them, it's not going to mean you're getting your sports back."