The next chapter in the ongoing saga between the City of Warwick and the Warwick School Department is being written, and it will be very interesting to see how this one plays out.
The Warwick City Council has firmly and effectively placed considerable pressure on the schools, with news breaking on Wednesday courtesy of Council President Steve Merolla that the council would be offering $1.3 million to the schools with the specific requirement that the money be used to restore the sports program that was cut last month to help close a $7.7 million budgetary hole.
It’s a savvy move from the city, albeit an openly calculated one. The implications, to us, are clear. The schools now have a very difficult choice to make, and no matter which way they decide to go, it could have serious consequences.
The school department has clung to a consistent approach throughout tense negotiations with the city: They’re not going to entertain offers that only focus on sports. They have refused to let the issue be narrowly framed by holding the line on insisting that there are $2.6 million worth of items that must be funded before sports is restored – things like textbooks, teaching assistants for first and second grade classrooms, school crisis counselors and maintenance repairs.
However, until this upcoming Monday, all talk about getting $1.3 million from the city to save sports has been solely that – talk. As of Monday night, however, an official offer will have been made, and the schools will need to decide if they are sticking to their strategy. Amidst $7.7 million in budgetary need, to turn down $1.3 million would be a public relations nightmare, especially if that money could be used to immediately restore the most public embodiment of the budget crisis – sports.
Sticking to the strategy would mean turning down money out of principle – something that could spell disastrous for the schools, who have enjoyed a good amount of support from the public at large, as protests have more affected City Hall than they have the school committee or school administration. Social media sentiment has skewed heavily against the city for perceived financial neglect of the schools, although that can flip in an instant, especially if the schools were to turn down this money.
Further adding to the complexity is the school department’s preparations of a Caruolo Act lawsuit. Being offered money from the council could, regardless of the ultimate decision, have an effect on litigation. It may play in the city’s favor that they offered support to save sports programming. It would further help the city’s case if they continued to meet in mediation to discuss the saving of other top priority items (like the ones mentioned earlier) once sports are restored. If the schools decline the money outright, it may hurt their case that they have tried bargaining in good faith with the city prior to suing.
It seems to us that the only choice for the school department is to accept the offer, but only with a very clear message that such an allocation does not mean the budget crisis is solved. Mediation must continue – even if this money is allocated – in order to find more money to restore those essential programs and at least some of the other items on the 46-line long list of cuts, which is what was needed to generate $7.7 million.
The city is playing a political poker hand here and forcing the schools to call or fold. Calling may weaken their position in the future, but folding will ensure that they lose sympathy among the public and, potentially, in the courts – a place this journey seems destined to wind up.
The school department has made its priorities clear, and now so has the city. It’s time to play ball.