Benjamin Franklin once said that an investment in education pays the best interest. While he is certainly referring to the investment of time it takes to become educated, and the “interest” of that being the wealth of opportunities afforded to those who make that investment as opposed to those who don’t, there are literal interpretations of his words that hold true for Warwick at this point in history.
To receive an education required to succeed in today’s world is expensive, and if you have a child going through college or are going through school yourself, this is not exactly a profound comment. However, education is also expensive to deliver.
Between paying for modern teaching tools – the laptops, WiFi, e-books, software and hundreds of littler implementations – the cost of transportation, keeping the lights on and heat running in huge buildings that you also have to try and maintain, salaries and benefits of educators and administrators, ballooning special education costs and minimal contributions from the state and federal government, an investment in education is a nine-figure endeavor for most cities, Warwick included.
While there will always be waste or over-spending in areas that some view as unnecessary, the expense of providing education is not going to be improved by ignoring the reality that costs go up every year. Salaries increase, insurance premiums increase, more people retire and schools break down requiring borrowing and consolidated debt.
Despite this reality, for nearly a decade now the school department in Warwick has been subject to what some might consider an impossible situation – they have been essentially level-funded since their budget was slashed by the 5 percent maximum allowed by the state in the wake of the worst recession in recent memory during FY11.
Level funding can be utilized as a way to reign in wasteful spending, and that can be an effective fiscal tool to get an irresponsible department under control. However, the level of financial stymieing seen in the city’s allocation towards the school department can, at this point, be seen as nothing short of excessive and, to the most extreme, almost vindictive.
Warwick not only cut the maximum amount from the school’s budget possible in FY11 – going from $124 million to $117.8 million – they have refused to re-inject that lost revenue even incrementally in the years since. This, coupled with declining enrollment, has forced layoffs and most recently the consolidation of schools on a level never seen before in Warwick.
This has caused beloved schools like John Brown Francis to face the axe to recoup savings. It has forced the hand of the school committee and administration to make staffing cuts that rightfully anger teachers and parents. But beyond the visceral, reactionary anger at the administration’s difficult fiscal position to balance a budget year after year with the same pile of money, despite the natural cost increases associated with normal economic ebbs and flows, one must ask the question: what are the alternatives?
Despite the popularity of the sentiment that all woes can be remedied by simply ejecting administrators, such action would not solve the fundamental problem of a lack of funding. Even if, for the sake of argument, enough administrators could be cut without harming school operations to recoup 1 million or so dollars, this is not even close to sufficient to address the fiscal woes of the city’s schools.
While some teachers would prefer to go back to only using textbooks and chalkboards and save money by foregoing expensive technology, this is simply not good enough to adequately prepare kids for an exponentially advancing society. To ignore the rapid advancement of technology in our world is disingenuous.
The only true beginning to a solution is for the City Council, along with the new administration led by acting Mayor Joseph Solomon, to bury their overt distrust built up from their dealings with school administrations in the past and look to the future with a clean lens. They must be able to see the situation as unsustainable and harmful to the educational future of the children of the city.
The fact is that, since 2008, the city’s allocation of funding in its budget has gone from a 64/36 split in favor of the school department to 53/47 in 2017. There is no way to skew that as fair or as anything but detrimental to the youth, who have no say in the matter.
It is easy to point fingers and blame the school committee and the administration for being “anti-teacher” as they are forced to lay off teachers and consolidate schools. It is easy to paint them as villains who only see in dollars and decimal places, however nothing outside the realm of television is that easily painted in black and white.
As school committee member David Testa outlined in his poignant statement to close Tuesday night’s school committee meeting, facts are stubborn things. The fact is that Warwick’s schools are underfunded, and that can change for the better this budget season or stubbornness can win the day and it can continue to get worse – the choice now lies in the hands of our elected officials.
As with any other problem that plagues any municipality, the only way Warwick’s financial problems can be addressed within the schools is to unite and work together. Let’s start a new chapter in Warwick’s history off on a positive note of collaboration, not more of the same pointless squabbling.