School budget remains imbalanced despite severe cuts approved

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The administrators of the Warwick School Department and the members of the Warwick School Committee adjourned their meeting at Warwick Veterans Middle School on Tuesday evening without a balanced budget for FY19 – approximately $1.5 million in the hole – which is a violation of state law.

The reason? The schools faced a $6.6 million deficit going into the meeting. Proposed at the meeting were $6.6 million in cuts – “draconian” cuts, as financial director Anthony Ferrucci called them – that include laying off 15 custodians, cutting the entirety of Warwick’s athletic program and committing to a plan of laying off math interventionists who help struggling students with arithmetic.

Thornton introduced the “awful” cuts, as he described them, by prefacing that the schools received a 0 percent increase in funding from the city since 2010 (about $124 million in city property tax allocation both years, according to him), while rising expenses from salaries, pensions, principal and interest payments on a 2006 bond, Department of Education mandates, out of district tuition and reductions in state aid have outpaced any savings generated from a 10 percent decline in enrollment and the closing of nine schools since 2008.

“By contrast, city spending in 2010 was $78.5 million. Today, city spending is $115.8 million. So, city spending is up 33 percent since 2010. None of these dollars have gone to schools, that's a fact,” Thornton said. “Now tonight we have to unfortunately cut $6.6 million from our budget. None of these cuts I'll recommend to you are good; they're all awful in my mind. But we must by law balance our budget tonight.”

Audits pave way for lawsuit

Though the drastic cuts would have, at great cost, balanced the budget, school committee member at large David Testa made a successful motion to save the athletics program and all 6.5 math interventionists from the guillotine, which left a funding gap of about $1.5 million left. That gap could not be solved immediately, but Thornton said a meeting will be held sometime next week to grapple with that deficit. Ferrucci said on Wednesday that meeting would likely be Tuesday, June 17.

Regardless, since the schools are already beyond the 30-day deadline to balance their budget from when they received their funding allocation from the city’s coffers – a $1.5 million allotment granted in early June that fell well short of the school department’s ask of $8.1 million – the imbalanced budget now, in theory, triggers an automatic investigative audit from the state Office of the Auditor General. Ferrucci said he wasn’t sure if this would happen or not, as the department is actively seeking to remedy the imbalance.

Whatever the Auditor General decides, the school department is fully poised to take this issue to the Rhode Island Superior Court. They approved a second audit consultant Tuesday night who will dig into the department’s fiscal practices. A consultant to perform a programmatic audit had already been approved by the committee in June. Thornton said he was hopeful the two consultants could prepare a report by early August.

That report, along with the independent audit that might come from the Auditor General, would all likely be utilized as part of a Caruolo Action lawsuit against the city of Warwick, which the schools could file in order to try to force the city to allocate more funding under the premise that the school department cannot satisfy state requirements for education laid out in the state’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) with the money they have received.

Before legal action can be taken, however, the law states that the school department must appear once more before the Warwick City Council with an official request for additional funding, and that they must also request waivers from certain RIDE programs that may free up additional money.

Included in the cuts was an assumption the department could get the $690,000 cost of the state’s Pathways program waived, which is a program that sends students to other school districts for specific educational programs, even if those programs are offered in-district. Thornton indicated at the meeting the department would also seek relief from the approximately $1.28 million in costs associated with sending students to charter schools in the state.

However, these waiver requests will have to wait until next week, as the committee, in an oversight following the extensive budget conversation, did not authorize Thornton to send the waivers to RIDE at the meeting by mistake.

In an interview on Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Joseph Solomon said that he had received an email from the schools requesting to sit down and talk about the budget situation. On the subject, he said: “I plan on sitting down and talking with them to see what they have to say. But I know what resources I have, and I know what resources the taxpayers have entrusted us with. You can’t spend what you don’t have. Don’t tell me how much you have, tell me how wisely you spend it. That’s a big difference.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, school committee chairwoman Bethany Furtado said she had not received a response from anybody at City Hall in regards to setting up a meeting, a message she said she sent on July 9.

Furtado re-expressed frustration with the city’s small allocation on Tuesday night, saying that she had proposed compromises and means to “make one more cup of lemonade out of this lemon” with the city, only to receive less than one fifth of what the schools demonstrated as their need.

“No one wants it to get ugly, but I will tell you this. If it's a fight, I am going to go in with my sleeves rolled up to my shoulders and I am going to fight for this district,” Furtado said. “I am going to demand that we get taken care of. Enough is enough.”

A long time coming

Members of the school committee said Tuesday night that this budgetary reality is the culmination of a financial storm brewing for years since at least 2011, when the city slashed funding to the schools by the maximum 5 percent that was temporary allowable by the state, which has never been directly restored. That storm, they claim, has finally made landfall, and the damage will be revealed in the coming months.

“I feel gutted looking at this,” said Terri Medeiros, school committee member at large, of the cuts necessitated by the financial woes of the district. She proceeded to tear up, unable to finish her thoughts until later in the meeting. “I thought the saddest day was when we have to give the pink slips to all of those great, energetic teachers,” she would later continue. “But this is worse.”

“I've said it before from this very seat and I've equated it to putting a frog in a pot of water and turning on the heat. Now that water is at a pretty good rolling boil,” Testa said. “We've been essentially level funded for nearly 10 years. Even if our allocation had kept up with the rate of inflation, we wouldn't be in this situation that we're in today.”

The largest cut from a single place in an attempt to balance the budget does not come from athletics or personnel. Rather, approximately $1.75 million was cut in a single swoop by not committing the department to paying the principal and interest on the $25 million bond that was issued by the city in 2006, payments that the school department argues should be the responsibility of the city.

“It was wrong 10 years ago when we first paid it and it's wrong today,” Testa said in support of not continuing to commit funds to the bond payments.

School committee vice chair Eugene Nadeau has decried the city mandating the schools pay for the principal and interest of the bond for many years, and he did not let up on Tuesday night. He reiterated that the bond itself states that the city shall be responsible for the principal and interest payments, not the schools, and that the payments have prevented the department from providing better education.

“I know this is my last year,” said Nadeau, who is not seeking reelection. “This will bother me for the rest of my life, no matter how many years there is left.”

The decision to not pay the principal and interest could potentially result in a court dispute of its own. The money is not paid out in a physical means to the city, rather it is an accounting figure. It will be something to keep an eye on for next budget year, as neither the schools nor the city will have that payment accounted for in their budgets, presenting an obvious problem.

As the school department must find $1.5 million from a budget that has already been significantly scraped – the cuts as they stand would mean the buildings can only be cleaned every other day, and with very few employees to do so, in addition to kids no longer being able to use the ice rink or swimming pools – Ferrucci warned that even worse cuts could be on the way.

“This is a sad day in Warwick,” said committee clerk Karen Bachus, summing up the somber mood of the evening.

Comments

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richardcorrente

I was at that School Committee (SC) meeting Tuesday night. I saw genuine pain on the faces of the SC. I agree with David Testa who made an amendment to put back athletics and math. I expected it to be funded by a cut elsewhere but it didn't happen. What I didn't see and what I don't understand, is why not one dollar was considered to be cut from the administration. Why couldn't the SC take a pay cut of 5 or 10% just from those administrators that make in excess of $100,000? As the SC was laying off almost 100 teachers they were adding staff like an "Assistant Principal of Climate and Culture" and an "Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning". They had the money for that and they even had money for a Public Relations firm but now they are running out of money for athletics and math?? Bad bookkeeping! The cuts of Tuesday night were described as "draconian" and "awful". If they had set the right example in the first place and start with a pay cut of their own, we wouldn't have this problem. (and the SC wouldn't need a PR firm either).

The only member that even considered cuts to the administration was Karen Bachus. She is the only member of the Warwick School Committee with enough integrity to lead-by-example. The 80,000 taxpayers that are paying the tab have given the SC over A BILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS since 2009 and this is the result. Bachas is right. This is a sad day in Warwick.

Happy Summer everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Thursday, July 12
Scal1024

This tax delinquent ^^^ LITERALLY JUST COPY AND PASTED A PREVIOUS COMMENT. Not only is his campaign on life support, Correntes creativity has been reduced to copying and pasting thoughts from the past. Sad!

Thursday, July 12
CrickeeRaven

His shamelessness in lying is only exceeded by his laziness, Scal. There were no "added" principal positions, the PR firm is not in the current budget, and there are not 80,000 taxpayers in Warwick.

Thank you for continuing to point out his many obvious defects as a candidate.

Thursday, July 12
WwkVoter

OK as to the bogus "billion and a half" spent in ten years, that means NOTHING.

For example, we have spent over a TRILLION on food stamps since 1965 and still people are hungry!

I spent over a HALF MILLION on household expenses since 2003 STILL have bills to pay!

Happy Anti-Boredom Month everyone.

Thursday, July 12
WwkVoter

As to the article itself, I should say we're in a bad fix. Maximum tax levy increase, and still can't get the schools enough to keep what they had going, and cover the raises recently enacted. This is really really tough for us all. But we also have to pay our way now and cover all the bases too. I hope this gets resolved in any way that's not too destructive, for example I hate to see sport or math interventionists cut, that's moving us in reverse. In our schools are our future.

Thursday, July 12
Scal1024

It really makes you wonder why there were ANY raises given out this past contract. I feel for the teachers in a sense because I feel their union leadership has really let them down the last few years. The system is no longer sustainable as is. I know there are some great teachers in Warwick, so this is not a reflection on them, it is a reflection of the economic climate of our city. I just feel like there were no meaningful concessions and because of that, there will be more layoffs, more school closings, and more contention. Both sides have acted recklessly, and both sides deserve blame for how they've handled things the last 5 years. Anyone who cannot agree with that is not being objective, and only looking to further their agenda. The time for blaming others is over. Its about time there is a 5-10-20 year plan for our schools, and we cannot get there with the teachers union and School Dept constantly battling each other every step of the way.

Friday, July 13
Cat2222

Scal1024, Your point is really at the center of all the issues. I know that teachers deserve to be paid and of course they need to have a living wage, but the Union is always fighting for more or to keep their status quo. And it's not sustainable anymore. Every city and town across the nation has faced or will face the same crisis. We aren't alone and this isn't anything new. It is time to start looking into how we can move past the old model to something that works without being tied to long-term payouts from the taxpayers.

We are long past the times where we can guarantee health insurance and pensions for employees that are retiring at much younger ages. My guess is the younger generation, who has found that the old system (paying going to college, getting a job, a house, a car) is no longer an option and will come up with plenty of ideas to revolutionize how we work with unions and deal with pensions. Change is necessary. It won't be pain free but it has to happen before we destroy ourselves from the inside out!

Friday, July 13
WwkVoter

Corrente still bogus claiming that he "got 29 taxes cut" in the comments under this letter to the editor:

http://warwickonline.com/stories/looking-for-answers-on-democratic-endorsement,135422?comment_result=posted#comments-post

Friday, July 13
WwkVoter

better link here:

http://warwickonline.com/stories/looking-for-answers-on-democratic-endorsement,135422

Friday, July 13
warwickmom

Waaaa waaaa waaaa crocodile tears from Ms Medeiros. She voted to give those teachers those pink slips. She, along with the majority of the other SC members, voted to spend ridiculous money on ridiculous things (ie-indoor turf). I, for one, have no sympathy for her, and cannot wait until she's voted out in November

Saturday, July 14
richardcorrente

Dear Scal,

How could I copy and paste comments on Wednesday 7-11-18 about a meeting that happened Tuesday 7-10-18, the day before? Not possible.

Rick

Sunday, July 15
CrickeeRaven

Here, Scal, I got this.

This is the make-believe mayor's comment posted on July 11:

"I was there. The School Committee (SC) meeting last night. I saw genuine pain on the faces of all five members of the SC."

Here is the link to that article:

http://warwickonline.com/stories/schools-unable-to-close-budgetary-gap,135315?#comments

The above comment was posted one day later, on July 12.

So, in addition to the numerous lies we have already seen from him, now he is lying about his own conduct on this website. I can not wait for Sept. 12 when honest, taxpaying voters put an end to this trainwreck of a campaign.

Sunday, July 15
Thecaptain

Everyone should be advised that certain members of the city council are poised to vote to ratify the police and dpw contracts tomorrow in the absence of the council audit report. These contracts indicate a 2.8 million dollar increase for raises alone, plus a reduction in the co-pay from 8% to 5% with no fiscal note attached. The result is a maximum property tax increase for the many years to come. Acting Mayor Solomon is placating to the unions to pass these contracts prior to the election and is attempting to divert the findings of the independent auditors report.

Any council member that votes to ratify contracts in the absence of the fiscal reports should be hung in effigy.

Sunday, July 15
allent

Public sector unions continue their criminal abuse of taxpayers. Other news, it's hot today.

Monday, July 16
WwkVoter

Rob Cote was correct, they ratified the 2.8 million public safety/public works raises contract before the audit. Today on WPRO Mayor Solomon and Dan York had a blowout! Yorke cut Solomon's microphone and put him on hold saying he can make an appt for tomorrows show and explain how this happened. Solomon tried to say it wasnt him who voted on it as he is not on the council anymore, which made Yorke 'explode'. Between the school increases and this, even having the largest tax increase we were allowed by law this year wont cover everything. Can the city start a GoFundMe?

Tuesday, July 17
Bob_Cushman

Before the vote was actually taken, the new Council President indicated that the analysis performed by the hired outside financial experts indicate that even with a maximum tax increase over the next 5 years, the city will still be tens of millions of dollars short of revenue. Much of the discussion centered around the need for the contracts to address the millions of dollars in escalating annual costs associated with retiree pension and free lifetime healthcare benefits (that these contracts do nothing to solve this problem). That didn't stop 5 of the council members from proceeding to ignore all these warning and still vote to ratify the contracts.

Mark my words. Very soon this city will be facing a major financial crisis.

Tuesday, July 17
WwkVoter

Not much of a city crisis, the council will simply raise taxes, maybe override the cap a couple times to catch up. That average person paying $3500 a year in property tax will be paying $4500 in ten years, with a 3% annual increase (which compounds). 4% is the max levy but the tax base expands by around 1% a year so the individual tax hike is closer to 3%.

Here's what it looks like for a home that is taxed at $3500 this year, over 15 years: (the net increase by year 15 is $150 per month, plus sewer/water hikes). Many of us will move before that happens, but others will come and absorb the increased costs. Paying $440 every month for a modest home on top of the mortgage, will be too much for many. But there will be a lot of individual and family budget crises, not a city one because they can just increase taxes each year.

Year/ Tax Bill

1 3500

2 3605

3 3713

4 3825

5 3939

6 4057

7 4179

8 4305

9 4434

10 4567

11 4704

12 4845

13 4990

14 5140

15 5294

Wednesday, July 18