By ETHAN HARTLEY With chants echoing in the background from over 100 students who gathered in front of City Hall Wednesday morning to protest $7.75 million in cuts made by the Warwick School Committee the prior evening - which includes the entire $1.3
With chants echoing in the background from over 100 students who gathered in front of City Hall Wednesday morning to protest $7.75 million in cuts made by the Warwick School Committee the prior evening – which includes the entire $1.3 million budget for school sports – Mayor Joseph Solomon doubled down on his insistence that sports and afterschool programming will remain come this fall.
“Those people out there demonstrating, they’re preaching to the choir,” he said. “We’re with them. We’ve been with them from day one.”
The demonstrating students, however, didn’t seem to agree. They stormed through the front door of City Hall, posting up outside of Solomon’s office lobby chanting “Where is the mayor” and “We’re not stopping.”
The crowd was eventually calmed down when a few student representatives along with Pilgrim girls soccer coach Tom Flanders were given access to speak with the mayor in his office, where Solomon reportedly re-emphasized his commitment to restore sports and programming to students, leading to cheers from the demonstrators.
Solomon likewise said during his weekly interview with the Beacon, which he held despite the commotion happening outside his window, that he wouldn’t be stopping either when it comes to finding ways to bring back sports and afterschool programming by the time schools – which just dismissed for the summer on Monday – are back in session in September.
He said he was looking into ways to have the city take on some cost burdens from the schools to be able to save the programming, such as having city parks and recreation employees cut the grass and maintain sports fields, and examining other areas, such as the costs for supplies, for more possible savings.
But school personnel have dismissed this idea as pure folly. Superintendent Philip Thornton recently explained that five employees – at a total cost of $250,000 – cut all 103 acres of grass on all 19 school properties in Warwick. Not only would the city assuming these duties only account for a fraction of the overall cost of sports programming, it would allegedly violate the contracts of the workers who perform those duties for the schools.
“I’m not privy to their contracts, I’m not looking to violate their contracts, but I am looking to keep after school sports in place and afterschool programs in place,” Solomon said.
However, it appears that, once again, the city and the schools are not on the same page about exactly what restoring sports and programming actually entails.
During their meeting on Tuesday night to balance the $173.6 million FY2020 budget, which begins July 1, the Warwick School Committee unanimously agreed to 46 different line item cuts in order to free up over $7.75 million to close their gap between what the year will cost versus the total funding available to them.
“None of [these cuts] we wished we had to have on the table today,” said a somber Anthony Ferrucci, finance director for Warwick Public Schools. “Everything here is extremely important to the success of our schools.”
Those items were put in a prioritized list, with the items at the top being the first priority for restoration by the school committee should more funding become available. Sports did not even fall in the top 10 in terms of priority (it was listed at number 17 of 46 items). Things like math curriculum, textbooks and professional training for teachers to instruct curriculum all came before sports in terms of what would be prioritized for restoration.
What this means, according to the list, is that the schools would need about $4.1 million total in order to bring back everything on the priority list up to and including sports and afterschool activities. Sports alone would cost $1.36 million to reinstate. The school committee and Thornton have made it clear that restoring educational items of importance may have to come before sports.
Solomon said on Wednesday that there would be no objection from him or the council if they could be assured that a $1.3 million allocation from the city to the schools would be utilized to bring back sports and afterschool activities.
“I would love to say at this point that if we gave them $1.3 million, it would be assured. There would be no objection from the council, but there’s no assurance of that,” he said. “We can get the money, that’s not the issue. It’s how the money is spent.”
However, School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus emphasized that a $1.3 million allocation for sports would not solve the problem at hand during a visit to the Beacon office on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not just about sports,” she said. “It’s about academics, it’s about clubs, it’s about music, it’s about drama. It’s about student assistance counselors for kids who are suicidal and strung out and start to use drugs or get involved with gangs. It’s about a lot more than sports. Sports are very important, but it’s not just about sports…They believe that their problem will go away if they take care of sports.”
Solomon and Bachus confirmed Wednesday that the city and schools were likely headed to court over the issue, which would be the second time in about six months that a so-called Caruolo Action would be pursued.
The first suit was dropped shortly after the new school committee was sworn in this January, which was a show of good faith from the new committee with Solomon and the city in order to meet in mediation and figure out how to address the budget deficit for the current fiscal year.
However, in the months that have progressed since the lawsuit was dropped, relationships between the new school committee, the city council and Solomon have soured. Bachus and School Committee Vice Chair Judy Cobden were vocal in their disappointment with the city’s funding allocation during this budget year, which included $1.7 million to cover principal and interest payments on a 2006 school bond but otherwise kept the maintenance of effort identical to last year’s funding level.
This is despite a request for about $7.7 million in funding aid from the city. A significant chunk of that ask comes from contractual raises owed to Warwick Teachers’ Union and WISE Union members, along with fringe benefits and other non-staffing increases.
“We cannot continue to sit and talk and get nowhere,” Bachus said when asked if a lawsuit was on the horizon. “The mayor has made it very clear that he does not plan to give us money to cover the raises or to cover anything else.”
Solomon said that he would prefer to go the mediation route, and that he will continue to offer that option, but the city will also be prepared should the matter go the way of litigation.
“Mediation effectuates the same thing, I think, when you have a meeting of the minds with a neutral arbitrator…It’s a lot less costly. I like using those resources towards education,” he said. “But if they choose to go the more costly route, so be it. It’s their right to do so. I can’t tell them don’t do it. We’re prepared to present what we have to present.”
What the city is left with, once again, is an impasse between the city’s government and the school department and its elected school committee with regards to what exactly the severity of the need is for schools, why things have gotten to this point and who should be on the hook to solve the problem.
Some on the City Council believe the schools have mismanaged money and have either wasted or refused to report savings achieved from closing schools and reducing staff, along with a student population that has been reduced by over 2,000 from 10 years ago.
“Last time I checked, if you have a cable box in your house and you decide to not have a cable box, the cost goes down, not up,” said Council President Steve Merolla during Monday night’s City Council meeting.
Merolla took issue with the notion that schools have been “level funded,” despite the fact that over 99.9 percent of new property tax revenue going to the city side of the budget since 2010, with the city contribution to the schools increasing by only about $14,000 in that span. He contends that the school district’s budget has increased from $157.8 million in 2008 to about $174 million this year, and that between the aforementioned declining population and closed schools and contributions from state aid, there should be more money available.
“We're committed to getting these issues resolved,” he said. “We're going to continue to work very hard to get that done, but it's disingenuous to only give the public what the city side is 'increasing' when you don't talk about what the state did and you don't talk about what happened over those 10 years and how much your costs should have gone down.”
These points of view were also shared by Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe, who is also a math teacher in Pawtucket.
“As an educator, as a taxpayer as a representative of the city, if any business or any person sitting at their kitchen table going over a budget, if they eliminated their cable bill and they eliminated their electric bill and they eliminated their gas bill and they sold their summer home, I think we all can agree they'd have a little extra money to spend,” he said. “You can throw millions and millions of dollars at a situation and it will not solve the problem.”
The Warwick School Committee took no pleasure in slashing programming and all school sports Tuesday night.
“It's truly a dark day for the city,” said Nathan Cornell, committee clerk. “I'm sorry for everyone because this is going to be terrible. I wish these cuts weren't happening. This is going to kill our school district and in effect it's going to kill our city. It's terrible.”
“I said from this seat a year or so ago that I believed there was a reckoning coming. I thought it was last year, but it's this year. It's here,” said committee member David Testa, who still has a daughter in the school system about to be a senior at Pilgrim. “The only two words I have for you is, 'I'm sorry.' I never thought this day would come. Never in my wildest dreams.”
Testa reiterated his belief Tuesday night that only through additional funding can the schools begin to solve the problems at hand.
“We got here because of what I have called a starvation of funding,” he said. “I truly believe with every fiber of my being this is not a spending problem, it's a funding problem. Despite what other people might think.”
Superintendent Thornton kept his comments brief, agreeing that more funding is the only solution.
“These very difficult cuts, including textbooks, teacher assistants, sports and clubs, come after having closed schools and having reduced staff in previous budget years,” said Thornton. “Warwick Schools are at a crossroads. More funding is needed for education in the city of Warwick.”
During her visit on Wednesday, Cobden reiterated her disgust that she had no choice but to vote for a total cut of sports given the dire situation the schools are in. Cobden, a varsity athlete who still holds a school record for goals against in field hockey at Pilgrim High School, teared up during the meeting on Tuesday and later held up her old Letterman jacket as a symbol for her commitment to trying to find ways to avoid the inevitable.
Those efforts ultimately proved not to be enough, despite going line by line through the budget looking for savings. She took issue with Solomon’s statements that he could swoop in and save sports by taking over duties that belong to the schools.
“Nobody is going to be a hero in this,” she said Wednesday. “It’s bad.”