When discussing large sums of money, it’s important to keep things in perspective. For most of us – newspaper employees definitely included – trying to conceptualize how far even just one million dollars truly goes is a difficult, if not wholly impossible task.
Keeping this in mind, it is even more difficult to try and wrap your head around municipal and school budgets, which require hundreds of millions of dollars to operate and function. Naturally, the more cynical among us will instantly turn to the belief that there is simply millions of dollars of fraud or waste happening within each budget balance sheet.
More often than not, though, the truth is simply more boring. Costs increase significantly depending on how many people your budget is responsible for and, in the case of school budgets, how many buildings you have to maintain, repair, staff and how many students you need to transport, educate and provide food for.
The Johnston School District, for example, has only eight schools with 320 teachers responsible for educating 3,190 students as of their 2018-19 school year. Their total budget for FY19 stood at $56,545,285. Warwick, on the other hand, is responsible for 20 school buildings and has about 867 teachers responsible for an enrollment of about 9,000 students. The most recently adopted budget figure for Warwick schools is around $171 million.
Fittingly, Warwick has about three times the number of students and about three times the number of educators. Johnston’s budget multiplied by three is around $168 million. Although that calculation involves generous rounding, it indicates that Warwick is not wildly off the charts in terms of budgeting. When you also factor in the fact that Warwick has faced significant declining enrollment and decreasing state aid, in addition to a contribution from the city that just barely rises above the 2010 funding level, it is actually surprising that the budget hasn’t ballooned higher.
Of that huge budget, it must be noted that the vast majority goes to salaries and benefits for teachers and administrators, to the tune of about $140 million (about 80 percent of the budget). Only about $4 million (2.3 percent of the adopted budget for FY19) was slated for school building improvements. Of that already low figure, another $500,000 has been slashed to try and help balance the budget following the $6.6 million shortfall experienced by the district following budget proceedings.
In general, this has been the unfortunate annual routine for our school department. By the time old and new expenses are taken care of, there is mere pittance left for maintenance or improvements to the schools. When emergencies emerge – like broken fire alarm systems in two schools this past year – administrators must sacrifice other portions of the budget just to stop the bleeding.
Any homeowner knows that preventative maintenance is the right course of action. Deferring things that need fixed and dealing with them when they finally break down beyond repair is a sure way to drain your bank account and, when it happens in school districts, it’s a surefire way to kill morale of students and staff who have to teach in buildings that aren’t up to modern standards.
It is important to emphasize that it is absolutely, one-hundred percent useless at this stage in the situation to play the blame game. There have been dozens of iterations of school committees and school administrations who have done the same thing – ignore the problem, kick the can and keep the train running on band-aids. Any number of different superintendents, school committee members and even city council members or mayors could have seen this problem incoming, but here we are.
However, now there is an actual opportunity to make a serious investment into the school district. On Nov. 6 voters will be able to decide if they want to keep hurling blame while proposing nothing of constructive value or if they want to step up and be part of the solution.
The bond, if reimbursed at the minimum level by the state, will result in $24 million in debt for the taxpayers. Spread out over 25 years, this level of debt is almost negligible in terms of what physically comes out of your pocket each quarter. There is absolutely no denying the need for some real improvements – we actually need about five times this amount of investment – and this is the start.
We implore you to read the news story on the bond and check out the presentation on the school department’s website to see where this money would go. It would directly impact our students’ and teachers’ lives for the better. There is simply no room left for petty arguments over things that happened in the past. This is our children’s future, and we will decide its quality.