SCHOOLS

Layoffs loom as committee wrestles with school budget

Committee nixes layoffs for moment, but few other places to make cuts

Posted 5/21/20

By TARA MONASTESSE and JOHN HOWELL The prospect that the School Committee was considering layoffs, resulting in a reduction of programs, was all that was needed for callers to dominate most of the nearly three-hour long online School Committee May 12

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SCHOOLS

Layoffs loom as committee wrestles with school budget

Committee nixes layoffs for moment, but few other places to make cuts

Posted

By TARA MONASTESSE and JOHN HOWELL

The prospect that the School Committee was considering layoffs, resulting in a reduction of programs, was all that was needed for callers to dominate most of the nearly three-hour long online School Committee May 12 meeting.

While the committee ultimately voted 5-0 to keep the seven positions under consideration, now that the mayor has recommended a school budget that is $6 million less than what the committee requested, the issue of layoffs – and likely layoffs on a larger scale – will come up again.

The City Council will consider the school budget in the first of its budget hearings starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Budget hearings are scheduled to continue the following evening and possibly Thursday if needed, with the council taking a vote on Saturday, May 30, at 9 a.m. Links to the Zoom meetings will be on the city website under City Council. Provisions are being made for public comment.

Mayor Joseph J. Solomon’s $323.5 million budget plan, which includes no tax increase, would give schools an additional $2 million in city funding for a $171.5 million spending package.

School Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci said last week the department is prepared to go through the budget with the council line by line, adding that the department is aware the city isn’t capable of funding anything near the additional $8 million initially sought.

Yet Ferrucci, as City Council members Anthony Sinapi and Steve McAllister have expressed, feels the committee is in a better place than where it was last year at this time. There’s communication between the schools and the administration and he sees collaboration in addressing the issue of making cuts.

Ferrucci understands council members will get calls from concerned constituents as the committee returns to align its budget with the eventual allocation. He is hopeful council members will be supportive of the committee’s decisions.

“There are things that are going to have to be cut. That is the economic reality we face,” he said. As the council reviews the budget, he expects the School Committee will hear what they feel can be trimmed.

These are going to be hard choices.

“There’s no fluff,” Ferrucci assures.

He added that given the impact of the pandemic on the economy as well as city revenues, he’s grateful for the mayor’s commitment to increase city funding of schools by $2 million.

“He’s tried to give us what he can,” Committee Chair Karen Bachus said of the mayor. She remains hopeful in face of the pandemic federal funding will become available to schools.

“But,” she adds, “ if we really have to balance [the budget] we have to go to layoffs.”

The seven positions considered for layoffs at the May 14 meeting – a speech/language/hearing therapist, a guidance counselor, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a physical education teacher, an elementary-level library teacher, and a Career Center staff member – provide students with educational and developmental resources they may have difficulty accessing outside of the school environment.

The public comments regarding the issue represented a broad variety of community members, including parents, staff members and special education workers within the city of Warwick. They touched upon all areas of student development that would be impacted by the domino-effect of cutting the seven proposed positions – whether the literacy and media skills exclusive to elementary library classes, the improvements made through physical therapy sessions, or the role specially trained educators play in meeting the specific needs of individual students.

Michaela Amaral, a kindergarten teacher at Lippitt Elementary School, was one of multiple teachers who advocated for the position of a special education staff member who works with her class as a speech-language pathologist, describing her as a “vital asset to the Lippitt community and Warwick Schools.”

Several staff members from Oakland Beach Elementary School also wrote in support of their school’s physical therapist, citing her enthusiasm and kindness when working with students to be a primary asset to their teaching.

“Therapists currently cover more than one school in our district as it is,” wrote Patricia Gagnon, the parent of a current fourth-grade student at Lippitt who benefits from special education services. “Laying off therapists will mean fewer therapists covering more schools, which will be very difficult.”

“Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language-hearing specialists provide valuable services to hundreds of students from Grades Pre-K through 12 throughout the district,” wrote Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union. “These services are frequently incorporated into students’ IEPs, and, therefore, eliminating the professionals who provide these services will eliminate the services and violate IEPs.”

Bachus reflected on the history of Warwick schools in the context of past budget cuts that have affected the district’s ability to provide essential programs and resources for its students. 

“Having watched the school system over the past 20 years, and especially the past 12, I watched Warwick schools lose 5 percent of their funding … We were the only district in the state that was cut by the maximum amount allowed, and that was never restored; that was under the Avedisian administration,” Bachus said. “Each year, we had to get rid of good things for kids.”

The budget forwarded to the City Council had an increase of approximately $8 million for FY 2020-21, reduced from the superintendent’s initial $11.9 proposed budget increase during a series of virtual budget meetings over the past several weeks. Superintendent Philip Thornton’s observation that salaries represent the lion’s share of the budget raised the question of how to proceed with layoffs to the forefront of the discussion.

“These are necessary positions,” Bachus said regarding the proposed layoffs. “In a city school system the size of Warwick, having two physical therapists would be awful and very unfair to the two that are left. And the same goes for everything else.”

Judith Cobden stressed the need to “find the money elsewhere,” advocating for an alternative method that would not involve cutting positions vital to student support and development. Citing library staff, guidance counselors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists as “essential to a lot of kids with needs,” Cobden asserted that cutting these seven positions would ultimately be detrimental to the school system.

However, while the role of special educators in Warwick schools has been reaffirmed by the decision to forgo layoffs, the future is still uncertain for the budget of FY 2020-21.

“We’re not going to get there in the supplies and materials,” remarked David Testa prior to the motion to eliminate layoffs. “Whatever this committee decides on this, my prediction is that it’s going to pale in comparison to what decisions we’re going to be making in June and July.”

Video of Tuesday’s virtual meeting can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=0x9Ii1UsGG4.

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