Following a failed attempt to reseed $3.4 million in surplus funds to the fiscal year 2015 budget at its meeting last month, the Warwick School Committee restored a portion of that surplus at last Tuesday night, approving a revised budget of $162,581,164.
Schools Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained that approximately $2 million of the $2.7 million surplus that was reseeded constitutes committed funds for projects started earlier this year but because they weren’t completed by June 30, those funds must be carried over to the FY 2015 budget.
The remaining $700,000 in surplus funds is split between $280,000 for teacher professional development and $437,000 for technology hardware.
Ferrucci said it was important to include the professional development money because a professional development day will be held later this month for teachers, which they must attend according to their contract, and if the money wasn’t there, the professional development session would not have been held, opening up Warwick Public Schools to a breach of contract lawsuit from the Warwick Teachers Union.
The committee wanted to make amendments to add additional surplus funds to the budget but couldn’t decide on how that money should be spent.
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn wished to add $195,000 to hire consultants to assist the school department in the areas of math and science, as she feels math scores are too low and schools need improvement in that area. Initially, she wanted to hire three math consultants, at $65,000 each, for a year to train and support math and science staff, but after some discussion she decided to not limit the number to three consultants and instead add the equivalent dollar amount to be used to hire as many or as few consultants as the department saw fit. The motion was ultimately tabled and will be revisited at next month’s meeting so more information can be gathered.
“I’m appreciative for professional development math funds because that’s a weak area, but it’s difficult to give you specific information on who we would look to as consultants,” said Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum. “The prudent thing to do is to look at the data to see where we need improvement. We wouldn’t get very far with that dollar amount, so we need to look at what consultants are out there that we can afford.”
Although committee member Eugene Nadeau supported Ahearn’s motion, saying “90 percent of the 4,400 students in Rhode Island that failed the NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] test was due to failing the math portion of the test” and that consultants would help, not everyone on the committee agreed with the motion.
“It sounds to me like we’re asking to have training for the teachers because students failed NECAPs and I don’t feel we can put that all on teachers,” said vice chair Terri Medeiros. “I think this needs more study.”
Karen Bachus sided with Medeiros.
“I think we need to look at the data before we put a Band-Aid on things,” she said. “Let’s not just say this is the teacher’s fault; maybe there other things going on here.”
Ahearn fired back.
“We have progress monitoring saying our math scores are going down and there’s a decline in math skills; it’s not just NECAP,” she said. “We’re elevating ELA [English Language Arts] students, but we haven’t done anything with math and science.”
Kathleen Desrosiers, coordinator of English Language Arts, responded.
“We’re working hard, but our reading scores aren’t anything to write home about,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the future of where we’re going. Reading scores still remain a challenge and our Title 1 schools are growing in poverty. Take the time to look at where we are.”
Nadeau, who said he believes hiring the consultants would be an effective start going into the year, was quick to defend teachers.
“No teacher in the school department is responsible for students not learning the subjects,” he said. “They’ve been hit with mandates year after year that take hours away from teaching students, which is their primary focus.”
Committee chairwoman Beth Furtado suggested that Siesel, Desrosiers and Ryan Mullen, coordinator of Math and Science, look at where best the $195,000 could be spent and report back to the committee at next month’s meeting. The committee agreed and tabled Ahearn’s motion to next month’s meeting.
Status of librarian
Once the $195,000 motion was settled, Bachus wanted to know the status of six English teachers that could be let go as part of the 20 teacher layoffs allowed by contract, as well as the status of a third junior high librarian.
“The third junior high librarian remains in the budget and we’ve been actively recruiting all summer,” said Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel for the school department. “If we don’t fill the position by the end of the summer, we’ll put a substitute teacher in until we can fill the position.”
Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, addressed the English teacher situation, saying it’s three literacy teachers at the junior high level that are in question.
“The superintendent is calling a meeting to see how we will proceed with the three positions,” he said.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino added, “It’s something we’re watching with enrollment and seeing what the needs are going into the next two weeks.”
Throughout recent budget proceedings, Nadeau has advocated for music and the arts departments and again attempted to add approximately $50,000 to the budget for those departments but the motion failed.
“I find it so discouraging. We have nearly 2,000 students in Warwick involved in arts and music winning award after award wherever they go,” he said. “It’s a highlight for the students and their families.”
Ferrucci said the music department has realized a surplus the last three years and said he cannot support adding money to a budget that has surpluses the last three years.
“There are seven instruments at Toll Gate that are broken and can’t be used, now multiply that across 23 schools,” he said.
It appeared one more amendment would be made to the budget in the amount of $250,000 for athletics and extra-curricular activities after Mullen pointed out that part of the money is designated for stipends for coaches and advisors, and while the teams and programs may be intact, it’s a problem if there aren’t coaches and advisors to run them.
Initially, Furtado made the motion to add the $250,000 to the budget but immediately withdrew it to be considered at the September school committee meeting along with Ahearn’s motion to add $195,000 to support staff with training.
At last month’s meeting, Ferrucci explained that although the $250,000 makes up about 30 percent of the athletics budget, enough money currently exists in the budget to ensure that fall sports and activities will be maintained and unaffected.
Following the committee’s approval to restore $2.7 million of surplus funds to the FY 2015 budget, it leaves the school department with $670,808 of uncommitted surplus. If Ahearn’s tabled motion to add $195,000 to the budget for math consultants is approved, along with the $250,000 for athletics and extra-curricular activities, at the next meeting, it would leave the department with $225,808 of uncommitted surplus funds.
“Whatever surplus is not budgeted will be held to protect us against $3 million worth of budgeted savings in staff retirements and cuts,” said Ferrucci, adding that he won’t know those final numbers until November.
If the savings aren’t realized, Ferrucci said the remaining uncommitted surplus funds would be used to make up the difference. If there aren’t enough surplus funds to cover, he said freezes and additional cuts would have to be implemented to make up the difference.
In other committee action, consideration of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) offer to transfer the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center (CACTC) property to Warwick Public Schools was approved.
Ferrucci explained that if the City Council grants approval, Warwick Public Schools would receive a $3.1 million grant from RIDE to enhance the CACTC facility, currently housed at the Toll Gate campus. He said there were additional advantages to transferring ownership.
“If we don’t do this, the decision could be made to close the center and then we would have to pay tuition for our students to attend other centers outside the district,” he said, adding the school department would lose further funds from the elimination of tuition payments it currently receives from students outside the district enrolled at the center.
Ferrucci said if the center were to close, and if just half the students went to centers outside the district, it would cost the school department approximately $2 million per year in tuition payments.
Ferrucci said in addition to taking advantage of the $3.1 million grant to enhance the facility and ensuring the center stays open, a third advantage to taking ownership of the property is the school department controls how it’s used. He explained that some CACTC programs currently operate as satellite programs at the other high schools and there’s nothing saying that all programs have to be housed at the center. If the need arose, he said, programs could be moved out of the center to satellite locations and the center could be used for whatever needs the department has, as it would be under its control.
The move was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Ahearn and Nadeau dissenting, saying they wanted more information before approving the measure. The next step is to seek City Council approval.