There was good news and bad news at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting.
The good news: The $3.4 million budget surplus for fiscal year 2014 is greater than what was anticipated. It’s important to note that approximately $2 million of that $3.4 million surplus must be carried over to the FY 15 budget as committed funds for a number of projects that were started in 2014, and as such would have been included in the FY 14 budget but because the projects weren’t completed by June 30, that funding must be shown as a surplus in FY 14 and carried over to the FY 15 budget as an expense for when the projects are completed. That leaves an approximate unrestricted FY 14 budget surplus of $1.4 million.
The bad news: The School Committee needed to make $1.7 million in budget cuts to its adopted recommended FY 15 $160.6 million budget in order to achieve a balanced budget of $158.9 million, which was allocated by the City Council. Since the School Department had achieved an unrestricted surplus of $1.4 million, the plan was to use the surplus to reseed many of the items that had been cut, however School Committee members disagreed on which items should be reseeded and approval of the superintendent’s recommended revised $162 million budget failed by a 3-2 vote, with committee chairwoman Bethany Furtado and vice chairwoman Terri Medeiros voting in favor of approval.
The result is a $158.9 million FY 15 operating budget going forward and a $3.4 million FY 14 budget surplus (the $2 million committed funds portion for FY 15 expenses was part of the superintendent’s recommend revised $162 million budget proposal, which failed) that has yet to be implemented.
Items cut in the $1.7 million budget reduction, among others, include: $385,000 for secondary level math coaches; $250,000 for the hiring of necessary staff in order to separate the Legal Department from the Human Resources Office; $60,000 in curriculum professional development; $300,000 in district-wide professional development; 250,000 in athletics and extracurricular activities; $55,000 that had been added for Music and Arts, thereby level funding those areas; $176,810 for textbooks; $230,000 for building improvements; and $463,598 for technology and computer hardware.
According to the superintendent’s recommended revised FY 15 budget proposal, the following items, representing approximately $1.3 million, would have been reinstated had the proposal been approved: technology and computer hardware; textbooks; athletics and extracurricular activities funding; curriculum professional development; and district-wide professional development.
The $300,000 for district-wide professional development is a critical piece, as that money accounts for two professional development days for teachers during the school year. The first day, held in August, is mandatory for all teachers to attend, while the second day, held in March, is voluntary.
Schools Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci said there’s about an 80 percent participation rate in March. He explained that each day costs $150,000, so even though the March day is voluntary, the money needs to be there in case everyone shows up.
When asked what would happen if the money is not reallocated in time for the professional development day in August, Ferrucci said the Warwick Teachers Union (WTU) could sue the school department for breach of contract since there would be no funding to support the professional development day, which is mandatory and included in the WTU contract.
Even though the WTU contract is up at the end of August, Ferrucci said existing terms would be in place until a new contract can be negotiated.
When asked to elaborate on the $250,000 cut in athletics and extracurricular activities, Ferrucci said it’s about a 30 percent cut to that line item, and although that money has yet to be reinstated, he said there’s still enough in the budget to cover fall athletics.
Included in the reallocation of committed funds portion of the surplus was $150,000 to hire an outside consultant to examine the district and develop a long-range plan with regard to consolidation and how the district should move forward, as well as $225,000 in new technology hardware, bids of which had to be tabled Tuesday since there’s currently no money to support them.
The remaining $1.6 million of the total $2 million committed funds is allocated for building projects, including a new roof at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School and new HVAC systems at Lippitt and John Wickes elementary schools, among others.
Ferrucci explained that because work on those building projects has already been approved and the contracts signed, that work would continue and if it’s completed before the $2 million are reallocated to the FY 15 budget, those line items would show as being overspent.
RFP for Outside Consultant
Although the School Committee approved the Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire an outside consultant to examine the district by a 4-1 vote Tuesday, with Furtado dissenting, Ferrucci said the RFP can be submitted and the committee can accept bids, however no contracts can be awarded since the $150,000 that had been set aside for such a move is part of the FY 14 surplus that has yet to be allocated.
Furtado was concerned the RFP contained redundancies and was wasteful, preferring to spend funds on needs in the district such as all-day kindergarten.
“The goal of consolidation is to maximize resources for our students. The scope of work in this RFP could cost millions, and it’s work that has already been performed by our staff and trained professionals,” she said, proposing to delete large portions of the RFP, as things like curriculum have already been established. “This is duplicative and unnecessary. Any planning beyond 10 years is speculative, at best. We should be spending money on necessary issues for our students.”
Furtado said the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC), which recommended closing Aldrich and Gorton junior highs and moving those students to a re-purposed Warwick Vets super junior high and splitting Vets students between Pilgrim and Toll Gate high schools, looked at multiple options and came up with sound recommendations.
“I can’t see paying hundreds of thousands to duplicate what we already know,” she said. “It appears we will be on hold indefinitely until the [consultant’s] report is finished and we don’t have time to wait for that.”
Futado continued, saying, “We spent four years coming up with plans but they were tossed out the window. We’re wasting educational time for our students that they won’t get back.”
School Committee member Karen Bachus, who chaired the subcommittee that developed the RFP, said the purpose of the RFP is to look at what’s been done in the district and make recommendations, “not to reinvent the wheel.”
“There’s a lot we can do and look at with the buildings that we have,” she said. “The ongoing reporting would be done by us [school committee and school administration], not by the consultant, so that we’re always going forward and planning for the future to do the best for our kids.”
School Committee member Jennifer Ahearn, who also served on the RFP subcommittee, said the plan is for the consultant to develop a three- to five-year plan that conceptually moves out in five-year increments, 10, 15 and 20 years, in an ongoing manner.
“The further out you go, the more conceptual it becomes,” Bachus said. “We want to put a process in place to avoid having constant delays or getting caught short with technological advances.”
School Committee member Eugene Nadeau voted in favor of hiring an outside consultant because he felt the LTFPC recommendation was too limited in scope.
“You don’t close Vets three months after [you develop] the report and then close Aldrich and Gorton one year later,” he said. “There are 18 other schools that were not looked at. We hope the consultant will look at all 24 schools and issue a report accordingly.”
Nadeau reiterated his wish to see sixth grade moved up to the junior highs to create a true middle school model, with grades 6 through 8, and full implementation of all-day kindergarten before any consolidation is considered.
“It may take three or four years, but then we can take a long-term look at the district and consider consolidation for all schools,” he said.