The Warwick School Committee was heavily criticized during their December meeting on Tuesday night at Warwick Veterans Junior High School due to being unable to deliver promised retroactive and proactive raises to the teachers on time for their Dec. 21 paychecks, as was agreed to by union president Darlene Netcoh and committee chairwoman Beth Furtado prior to the ratification of the new collective bargaining agreements.
The night started off with around 50 teachers picketing in the hallways outside the Vets auditorium, donning signs reading “HONOR OUR CONTRACT,” “FOLLOW THE CONTRACT YOU SIGNED,” and a particularly colorful one which had a caricature version of Superintendent Philip Thornton’s face superimposed over Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, labeled “How the Grinch Violates our Contract.”
Although a brief singing and music intro from the Warwick Vets Choir made for a peaceful start to the night, frustration oozed from the teachers in the audience shortly after regular business commenced. Shouts and disapproving jeers continued throughout the night, multiple times prompting committee members to ask for quiet so they could hear administrators giving presentations.
The tensions reached a boiling point following committee member Karen Bachus asking, plainly, whether or not the teachers would receive their retroactive and proactive pay raises on Dec. 21 or not.
“The current budget as adopted does not have that expenditure budgeted,” answered Anthony Ferrucci, chief budget officer for the school department, continuing to report that they could only allocate money towards the pay increases once they were made aware of how much money would be given to them by the Warwick City Council.
“I am very, very disturbed by this,” Bachus continued. “I think we need to find a way to make transfers and do whatever we need to do to pay our teachers.” She suggested allocating money from elsewhere in the school budget, like future salaries to be paid, to satisfy the raises and then get the money from the council to make up for it.
The total cost for the raises is around $4.8 million. Ferrucci said that they would be requesting $4.5 million from the council. The council only withheld about $3.3 million from the school department during budget season with the caveat that they would receive that money once a contract was reached with the teachers.
Ferrucci said that, both tangibly and legally, doing what Bachus suggested was impossible.
“The identification of $4.5 million to transfer, I have no clue where that comes from,” he said. “The school committee is responsible for maintaining a school budget which does not result in a debt…The issue is we have to come back to you with a recommendation for a revised budget to formally let you know what this expenditure is and what our action plan is. We won’t know what that is until we know what the revenue stream is from the city.”
After Furtado tried to move the meeting along following the discussion, Bachus interjected.
“This really sucks, Beth,” she exclaimed. “You wonder why I get freaking nutty up here…You created a contract and allowed a contract to be signed, and the money isn’t there. Now that is a problem. You do don’t do that. If the money isn’t there you don’t resolve the contract.”
Netcoh reiterated the teachers’ grievance about the raises during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I wrote a letter to the chair of the school committee – actually two letters. I did receive a response from the superintendent but I still haven’t received a response from the chair of the school committee,” she said. “My letter was simply asking whether or not the school committee would honor the Dec. 21, 2017 date that I have on a piece of paper with Ms. Furtado’s signature and my own. She signed it on Nov. 20 and we ratified the contract on Nov. 21. If I did not have that signature and that date, then I would not have put that date in front of the members and they would not have voted that evening to ratify.”
Netcoh said that the union would not be rescinding their vote declaring “no confidence” in both Thornton and Furtado, which they voted on back in October.
“This needs to be honored. That’s why people here are upset. That’s why you lack credibility, and that’s why we have no confidence and that’s why we have people calling for resignations and firings and everything else,” she said. “Do your job like you’re supposed to do. Please.”
Furtado did not respond to a request for comment.