Council allots $3M to schools, dishes out criticism
Members of the Warwick City Council, in advance of allocating a previously promised $3 million to the Warwick School Department last Wednesday, took the opportunity to criticize the department for what they considered to be bad business practices, disingenuous behavior and irresponsibility when projecting the cost of their current year budget this past June.
Council president Joseph Solomon made the distinction at the beginning of the discussion that, when the school department came before the council to discuss their FY18 budget in June of 2017, they anticipated an increase of $2.4 million to compensate for salary increases pending from a new contract, and a need for $600,000 to purchase Chromebooks.
The council, back then, decided to withhold this $3 million from the budget with the caveat they would receive it when the teachers and administration had come to terms on a new agreement.
“The answer I received was, no, it was not going to require any more [money],” Solomon said.
However the projections back then did not anticipate for retroactive pay increases, which have been actualized at an annual effective rate of 2.3 percent for the previous school year and the current school year. This resulted in a total increase of salary costs and fringe benefits amounting to $4,586,801. The school administration, adjusting for the new costs, inquired as to whether or not they could get more than $3 million from the council.
Certain members of the council did not entertain the notion kindly.
“That’s unbelievable to me that you would make those statements that you didn’t anticipate having to make any payments for two years of previous contracts,” said Ward 5 Councilman and finance committee chairman Ed Ladouceur. “I think there’s a different between not anticipating and not wanting to. The fact of the matter is, because you went into these contract negotiations with that mindset, that was totally irresponsible.”
Ladouceur was further incensed by cuts that were proposed by Superintendent Thornton at the Jan. 10 meeting of the school committee to close the budget shortfall – which included cuts to line items involving counseling services for vision-impaired students and tutoring services for hospitalized students.
“All of these items you’re speaking to, the majority of these items affect the kids. You’re so quick to say that if we don’t resort to your extortion – and that’s what this is, in my opinion, is extortion – then you’re going to take it out on the kids,” Ladouceur said. “If you take it out on the kids, it’s because you took it out on the kids. Not because of what this city council did or didn’t do.”
Reacting to the comments made by school committee chairwoman Beth Furtado, who said that the schools have been “grossly underfunded” for years, Ladouceur countered by saying that the student population has decreased significantly “from some 21,000 to about 9,000,” and that “the city council could have cut your budget every year for every student that was lost at the rate of cost to educate that student.”
“You say you can’t find the money to live up to the contracts that was negotiated with you folks in good faith, at least on one side of that negotiating table, but you can find 10,500 bucks to buy these ridiculous doorstops,” Ladouceur said, holding up one of the green and black doorstops recently purchased. “Your funding has, in fact, been increased. It’s been increased due to attrition. I don’t want to hear the fact that you don’t have the money.”
Ladouceur additionally lambasted the school department for what he perceived as wasteful spending on renovations to the former Gorton Middle School, on a PR firm that “isn’t working” and that there were multiple ways the schools could find money to erase the deficit, such as cutting administrative positions or dipping into what he openly asserted was a “slush fund” disguised as a healthcare reserve fund.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla expressed frustration at what he perceived to be an impossible situation for the city council to be put in.
“Anything we do we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t,” he said. “If we give them the full amount, we’re wasteful spenders. If we give them what we promised them based on their representations, then we’re responsible for cutting children’s programs, based on their own representations six months ago – or maybe it’s some place in between. This is not an enviable position for the council to be in.”
The council eventually voted unanimously 8-0 (Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister was not present due to a scheduling conflict) in favor of allocating the $3 million.
“We don’t have control over how they spend it,” Solomon said. “As long as everyone is aware of that, I feel comfortable that we on the city council do have clean hands, and we have never ever acted to take away that which is deserving of our students in the system…We are just the funding source.”
That money will come out of the city’s unrestricted reserve fund, which as of the FY16 audit sat at $18,436,000. Finance Director Bruce Kaiser said on Monday that, while the FY17 audit was not completed yet, they were anticipating an additional $6 million to $7 million in surplus to go back into the fund.
School department responds
After Ladouceur’s fiery moment, Superintendent Philip Thornton stood up and responded to him directly. He produced a doorstop of his own from inside his suit pocket, saying that they have erased a problem of bent doorframes in the schools stemming from the use of traditional wooden doorstops – an issue that he says cost the school department $60,000 in repairs last year.
Following the vote, Thornton and school committee member David Testa further sought to correct certain assertions made by Ladouceur in the lobby outside of the council chambers.
In regards to the proposed budget cuts, Thornton said that since they are in the midst of a school year, only certain line items can be touched – and staffing, be they teachers or administrators, is not among those items.
“You can’t lay someone off mid-year,” he said. “There are legal layoff timelines for staffing.”
He said that the two administrative positions brought up by Ladouceur – vice principal positions, one for each of the city’s middle schools, which were also targeted by Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh as being an example of wasteful spending – were not, in fact, new positions at all.
“The middle school administrators are not new administrators,” he said. “We’re closing three elementary schools, 800 kids have go up and two out of three of those admin slots are going to go up with the kids. You want to have a good proportional balance of vice principals to students.”
Thornton said that spending the money to re-purpose Gorton as the city’s main administration building was a matter of increasing efficiency.
“An admin structure where I can’t talk to the finance director because he’s across the city is dysfunctional,” Thornton said. “Curriculum was at Veterans, my teaching and learning people were at Veterans, he [finance director Anthony Ferrucci] was at Greene and I was at Warwick Lake – that is dysfunction at its height. I applaud having 60 people together at the same location.”
Testa, particularly, took heavy issue with the criticism levied that the school department was irresponsible in not assuming retro salary increases during budget time, because retro pay only came about into the negotiations as the result of interest arbitration after the union rejected a last best mediated offer.
“The only choice we had at that point was to not accept the arbitrator’s decision, and we’d still be sitting here on an impasse with no contract, or we accept it,” Testa said. “By accepting it, it binds us on language and not on financials. How would it have been received if we said ‘We’ll take the language, but to heck with the financials?’… If there was no retroactivity in interest [arbitration], we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
When the Warwick School Committee met the following evening at Warwick Veterans Junior High to balance their budget with the new $3 million in funding, they dedicated some of the time to respond to the assertions made by the council.
“What we have done, I believe, is the best we can do under the circumstances,” said Eugene Nadeau. “We don’t deserve to be dragged through the mud to the extent I had to listen to last night [Wednesday]. It’s not fair. I don’t mind criticism when we deserve it. But if there has to be fairness and respect between them at city hall and us sitting here right now.”
Nadeau expressed fear that the council would react negatively to learning that the school committee used the entirety of the $3 million allotment to balance the budget, rather than spending it as it was originally broken down by the council – $2.4 million for the contract and $600,000 to purchase Chromebooks.
Ferrucci assured Nadeau that the council would understand the situation.
“They fully understand what transpires during a negotiating period, so to take an assumption six months ago that can’t come to conclusion during negotiations and beat us over the head, I don’t think the city council would do that, because they’re intelligent enough to understand we’ve been transparent about what transpired,” Ferrucci said. “I can appreciate that they set aside $3 million, and now it’s a shared responsibility, and we’re achieving that shared responsibility to manage our budgets.”