Warwick Public Schools will need an additional $8 million next year to maintain the current level of operations, a consultant’s exhaustive audit of district operations has shown.
The 69-page report was outlined during what was surely the first joint meeting of the School Committee and City Council in many years. The meeting was held Wednesday night at the student/school run Tides Restaurant at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center.
While the wraps, cheese tray and cookies from Dave’s Marketplace contributed to a congenial atmosphere, attorney Matthew Plain’s findings – no less his observation that the cost of Warwick education exceeds by at least $2,500 per pupil of its neighbors; that Warwick teachers are among the highest paid in the state; and that union concessions are needed – were hard to stomach.
And if that was hard to swallow, school finance officer Anthony Ferrucci, using an assumption that about $2 million could be trimmed from next year’s budget for a total of $176.7 million, projected the school budget would climb to $197.4 million by 2025, an increase of $25.2 million over five years.
Ferrucci sees the five-year budget forecast as a “rolling document” that with the completion of the first year will project out the budget another year so that the committee has a grasp of where it is financially and what it can expect going forward in the next five years.
To some City Council members, the report by the law firm of Barton Gilman and Ferrucci’s projection is more evidence that city costs are outpacing its ability to raise revenue through taxation. (The four percent maximum increase in the levy allowable by legislation amounts to about $8 million.)
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur lauded the cooperative tone of the joint meeting, observing, “We’re in a different place, we’re talking, we’re communicating.” But he said more needs to be done.
“We need to admit to ourselves that we have a problem.” On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst, Plain put Warwick at a 10.
“This is a city problem. We have to make these cuts,” Ladouceur said.
Plain touched on a variety of factors that push the cost of Warwick Schools, including the number of students placed outside the district for which it has to fund at the per-pupil rate of in-district students; the fact that Warwick has more teachers proportionally to other districts; and that Warwick shares in the cost of Social Security for its teachers at a cost of $5 million a year while most other school systems don’t participate in Social Security.
Discussion also focused on the disparity of state funding by district, prompting Councilman Jeremy Rix to question why Cranston receives an additional $24 million in state aid when the Warwick and Cranston system have comparable enrollment. Plain pointed to the school funding formula and how that is rooted in the demographics of the community. School Committee member David Testa and Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh both argued Warwick isn’t being fairly rated and that there are higher levels of minorities and lower-income families than used for the basis of calculating state aid.
The district’s declining enrollment – 1,700 students in the last 10 years, Ferrucci said – has also put a dent in state funding. Meanwhile, he noted, mandates such as all-day kindergarten have pushed up costs and eliminated much of the savings of school consolidation.
There was consensus with the suggestion to appeal to state legislators for additional state funds for Warwick schools and the city.
Union concessions suggested
While Plain carefully chose his words and was challenged on some of the data he provided by Netcoh and James Ginolfi of the WTU, his conclusion that the union should make concessions or the district will be faced to seek legislative relief to insufficient funding did not sit well with the union.
The audit finds that Warwick’s total per-pupil expenditures exceed the state average by more than $22 million. Also, the audit concludes that although co-share on health insurance is 20 percent by contract, the current rates actually amount to 13 percent at a cost of $1 million to the district.
Netcoh questioned why the union had not been contacted for the audit, as they could have provided not only institutional history relative to existing conditions but also reliable data. As an example, she noted that the report’s total of Warwick teachers differs from the administration’s census and that both numbers vary from the union count.
Bachus said Monday she expects the report to be amended to reflect data provided by the union and that union representatives will be included in the second phase of the audit, which is expected to be completed after the first of the year. The second phase will look at the program offered by Warwick schools and “whether we are meeting the mark,” Bachus said.
Netcoh, who was provided a copy of the report prior to the meeting, read from a two-page letter questioning the validity of the audit.
“This report has inconsistencies, omissions, selective comparisons, biases, opinions and outright inaccuracies that render the findings highly unreliable and ultimately invalid,” she said.
She said Barton Gilman failed to look at savings that could result from the consolidation of selective school and city administrative services. What she called “one of the most disturbing elements” is the “opinion that longevity violates a state statute. There is no statute that bars longevity.”
Waving her paycheck stub, Netcoh termed the finding over the co-share of health insurance the “most egregious aspect of the report.” She claimed teachers have been co-paying more than 20 percent of the cost of health insurance.
“My estimate is that the school department will have to reimburse the teachers a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the amount that they have overpaid over the past few years,” she said.
Asked about the disparity following the meeting, Ferrucci shook his head. He said he would look into Netcoh’s claim, but he believes the current co-share is 13 percent. In looking at how to reduce the projected additional $8 million needed for next year, Ferrucci is planning on a $1 million savings from having teachers co-share a true 20 percent.
In a summary of school financing the report reads: “Stagnant, inadequate city appropriations to the schools, a shrinking student population [resulting in less state aid], and overly-generous contractual terms for certified personnel have all likely contributed to the district’s inability to adequately fund a high-quality education program.”
It goes on to say the district must “obtain relief from some of the material, financial terms of its certified personnel CBA [collective bargaining agreement].”
The long-range picture if action isn’t taken isn’t pretty.
“Inadequate programmatic offerings likely also impact property values, which ultimately impact both enrollment and the amount of money Warwick has available to appropriate to schools,” it reads.
Asked what she thought of findings regarding the pay of Warwick teachers and that the district has proportionally more teachers than comparable systems, Bachus said if that is true schools need to examine whether teachers are being used effectively to ensure the best outcomes.
Looking at the larger picture of city finances overall, Bachus feels the tentative agreement with firefighters fails to “claw back” sufficient benefits.
“It’s too little, too late,” she said.
As for possible concessions from the WTU, she said, “We don’t have a lot to work with. It’s about give and take, and we need something to give.”