The stage is set for a memorable meeting of the Warwick City Council on Monday Sept. 17, as the Warwick School Department is scheduled to provide updated financial information to the council in their attempt to receive additional funding from the city to address cuts made to balance their FY19 budget.
The meeting, originally scheduled to be held last week during the Aug. 15 meeting, was pushed off for a month in order to allow two auditors currently assessing the school department’s programmatic and fiscal practices to conclude and prepare their written report for the council to review.
However, if the meeting held by the council last Wednesday was any indication, it is questionable if even more precise, objective financial information gathered by a third party will dissuade some council members from their lack of trust in the school department – as multiple members expressed outwardly during the general communications portion of the meeting.
“We need more voices out there against the school committee and the superintendent,” said Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis. “The way they're running our school department is pathetic.”
At the center of the issue is a $6.6 million budgetary shortfall that the school department ran into as they prepared the budget for this school year. In order to balance that budget, the school committee reluctantly agreed to find $6.6 million in widespread cuts, which has most recently included 15 custodians, support staff and, drawing the most attention, the $102,000 needed to fund Mentor Rhode Island’s in-school mentor program.
The city has since offered to provide $1.75 million in additional funding (atop their original allocation of $1.5 million above the level-funded budget that former Mayor Scott Avedisian left in his wake), however the school department maintains that this only brings the shortfall down to approximately $4.85 million, as it merely takes care of a $1.75 million liability in principal and interest payments it agreed to pay on a 2006 school repair bond.
City Council President Steve Merolla spoke at length about his disappointment and frustrations regarding the situation – from how he disagrees with the perception that the city council is at fault for not properly funding the schools, to his distaste for comments recently made by Republican mayoral candidate Sue Stenhouse, to how the issue is awash with political undertones.
“It's important for the public to know that we can only raise taxes, for example this year, by a maximum of $5.8 million. And for next year we have a structural deficit of $3.8 million,” he said. “How the school committee can ask for an $8.1 million increase over their budget from the previous year when we only have the ability to tax $5.8 million is nonsensical. We don't have the ability to raise that much money.”
Merolla said it was the council’s responsibility to be fair and listen to the needs of all departments within the city, not just the schools. He took great issue with Stenhouse voicing publicly her belief that the council and Mayor Joseph Solomon should have given more to the schools.
“I find that almost comical that eight weeks ago, when we were discussing these very issues, that person did not show up for one of the four meetings before this city council,” Merolla said, adding that he also found it interesting how Stenhouse is close allies with Avedisian, who level funded the schools. “How can you say that we did something wrong and you want to be in charge of the city, but you're not here advocating one way or another for what you believe to be right or wrong.”
Merolla implored that everybody needed to adjust their expectations to be more realistic, calling for an end to the “shenanigans that go on in a political season.” He also took offense to what he felt was a perception from some unnamed members in the community that felt the city council didn’t care about supporting education in the city.
“All of you that live in the city of Warwick will have the opportunity to vote on a $45 million bond referendum to improve the Warwick schools. Forty-five million. Yet this council is accused by others of not caring about our students. It's infuriating,” he said. “This is a council that deeply cares about education and our students…My father was the former chairman of the Warwick School Committee for eight years. Education is at the root of my family.”
“I'm not here to cast blame,” he continued. “I'm here for everybody to recognize that we need to all do our fair share.”
Other council members, however, did opt to cast blame on the school committee and school department.
“The incompetence is beyond belief to me. You can blame this city council all you please. I have done battle, I will continue to do battle,” said Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. “Go into the Draper building and look at the offices and tell me why we don't have money for mentoring. We have offices the size of classrooms that 30 students used to be in. Then they have to go and buy furniture to fill the room so we don't have all this wasted space. Then we sit here and we have to listen to all this garbage that it's the city council's fault. It is not the city council's fault. It is irresponsible operations of a business.”
“For them to go and give the superintendent an extension to his contract when he still had a year and a half to go, that's not wasted money? There's a lot of wasted money out there,” said Councilwoman Travis. “They don't know how to spend any money. They all should resign because they are not capable of running the school department. They're not capable of taking care of our money and spending the money the way it should be spent – on our kids. And it's devastating.”
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix went so far as to say that the school department displayed “disingenuous” behavior by pushing off the meeting a month, which indicated that they weren’t really as concerned about addressing the cuts as they said they were.
“Disingenuous is the only word I can think to describe that kind of behavior, because if these terrible drastic cuts are the only solution, if we had these bottom line numbers, I just can't fathom why we wouldn't be receiving that presentation before the school year,” he said. “We're ready for that presentation. Where is it?”
Rix also said that the school department had demonstrated a “lawsuit mentality” even prior to budget hearings in June, as they posted an ad for an “attorney” before the first hearing even took place. For clarity, the schools actually placed an ad for a programmatic auditor to conduct an analysis of the schools’ programming; a preparatory step for a potential suit against the city, for sure, but it was not an ad to directly hire an attorney to sue Warwick, as depicted.
Both Ladouceur and Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe said that they would support changing the Warwick City Charter. Although they did not specify what changes they would make, it can be safely assumed they were referring to how the funding for the school department in the city has to be allocated through the city council, which has resulted in back-and-forth finger pointing for many years as the council is not able to actually affect how the money is spent, and the school committee is at the mercy of the council to determine how much money they need and deserve to receive.
Members of the public expressed their own frustrations during public comments.
“While I share your frustration with the ongoing bickering, shall we call it, between this council and the school committee, the bottom line is we have 160 underserved young people who have already been let down by the system,” said Mentor Rhode Island executive director Jo-Ann Schofield. “They have been let down by parents, perhaps; schools, perhaps; by the community. And we are going to allow that to happen again. I am angry. I am frustrated.”
Schofield said that other communities, such as Providence and Cranston, have taken measures to ensure that mentoring programs in those cities were funded – either through making it a line item in the city’s budget or by creating an account on hold to fund the program. She said that no matter how they do it, the city needs to find the money to help the kids in need.
“It's a volunteer program that takes money to run because we have amazing program coordinators that recruit, screen, train and match those mentors and then support those relationships, because those kids are going through some serious stuff,” she said. “This is a $300 million budget and we need $102,000 for 160 kids who need our help.”
Others were tired of the back-and-forth blaming and distrust displayed by some members of the council.
“I would just like to say how disappointed I am that half of you sat here for half an hour basically tearing down any potential that you can work together with this school department,” said Tracy McDermott, member of the WISE Union. “If everybody thinks this is some political game because this is an election year, think again. We need the money. I realize you're saying that you don't have it. I have heard that through 20 years of level funding.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton said on Monday that he was looking forward to the hearing and hopeful that the schools will be able to recoup some additional funding following a more detailed breakdown of the school’s efficiencies and needs.
Thornton also said in response to Ladouceur's comments about furniture at Gorton in a follow-up call on Tuesday that the administration had utilized recycled or reclaimed furniture to furnish the Gorton building, and that only a couple standing desks were purchased new and placed in the school.