The Warwick School Committee approved the potential layoffs of 72 teachers, 37 of whom are currently at the elementary level, during their meeting on Tuesday night. Karen Bachus was the lone vote against the measure.
The notices were sent out earlier this month in advance of their budget meeting with the Warwick City Council, which has been set for Tuesday, May 29 at 5 p.m. The school department will learn at this meeting how much of their $8 million ask in additional funding from the city they will actually receive and, by extension, how many of those layoff notices will have to be upheld.
The layoffs prompted further rebuke from Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh, who criticized the school department for including eight science itinerants – a position unique to Warwick where a specialty science teacher instructs elementary students once a week – in those layoffs, as well as math interventionists, reading specialists and librarians.
“You are destroying elementary education in this city,” Netcoh said during public comments.
Superintendent Philip Thornton reiterated on Wednesday that the layoff notices needed to be sent prior to June 1, and that the department has to prepare for a wide range of possibilities regarding how much money they receive from the city – including a scenario where they are level funded. In theory, all of those positions could be restored if they are given enough funding.
The high amount of elementary educators included in layoffs stems from over 117,000 square feet of elementary school space being closed in the district’s consolidation plan, he said.
He also said that funding to keep the science itinerants and math interventionists was actually included in the approved budget by the school committee in April, counter to what some had stated during public comments, however the affordability of those positions will, again, hinge on the money they receive from the council.
However, Thornton did say on Wednesday that the science itinerant model was not sufficient for modern educational standards, as the kids do not get enough instructional time, and so the district is phasing towards a model where elementary classroom teachers incorporate science into their curriculum.
“The science model we currently have is something to look at because it's not giving kids science more than one day a week, and that's not where we need to be,” he said, adding that students in grade 6 will be getting science every day as they move up to the middle school model for the first time and that grade 3 students will utilize a URI science kit program to increase their science time as well. The remaining elementary school grades are still being reconfigured to incorporate more science.
Still, Netcoh criticized the administration’s priorities.
“It seems the lack of an approved budget this time of year is only a concern to you people when it comes to teachers, the actual teachers in the classroom who provide education in this district,” she said. “When it comes to hiring more administrators or spending on technology, it doesn't matter that you don't have an approved budget yet.”
“The school committee could make other revisions to their budget, such as a consolidation of their administration to go along with their consolidation of schools before they lay off teachers,” Netcoh continued in a statement on Wednesday. “The superintendent talks about 'right-sizing' the district; he needs to 'right-size' his administration.”
Thornton responded to allegations that the district has added more administrators – one catalyst for that criticism being two vice principal positions being added at the middle school level during Tuesday night’s meeting – by explaining that the net effect on administrators in the district was actually a reduction of one administrator, not an addition of two.
He reasoned that, with the three elementary schools being consolidated , three administrative positions (the principals of those schools) were freed up. Two of those positions went into vice principal positions at Vets and Winman, where added administration will be necessary to handle the influx of 383 incoming sixth graders at Vets and 250 incoming sixth graders at Winman. One position was actually cut, he said.
“People have been saying we're adding administrators, and that's not really accurate,” Thornton said.
In response to a criticism that class sizes will already be stretched to the contractual limits due to these layoffs at the elementary level, director of human resources for the schools Katherine Duncanson said that the district was keeping “a very close eye” on enrollment figures heading into next year and that classrooms could very well be added – however it is too early to responsibly account for that at this time.
“A better decision can be made over the summer,” she said, adding that the administration has reached out to Netcoh requesting to hold a second job fair for teachers who might be able to return to the district in August. The first job fair is held in June.
In a prepared statement, at-large school committee member David Testa laid out the troubles faced by the school department and the school committee, and how a lack of funding from the city cannot be ignored when considering these issues. He urged people to show up to the May 29 meeting of the City Council to advocate for more money to be allocated to the schools.
“If you're willing to stand up at this microphone and criticize the School Committee for having to make painful cuts in order to meet our legal obligation to balance our budget, then logic forces you to turn out at City Hall to address the council,” he said. “Because whatever this committee cuts will be a direct result of whatever amount the Council allocates to our schools. It's that simple and that linear.”
Testa outlined how, since Fiscal Year 2011 when the city cut funding to the schools by the maximum 5 percent allowable by the state at that time due to the Great Recession – the only city or town in Rhode Island to do so – the city’s contribution to the schools has grown by an average of just .002 percent per year. In that same time, the city’s allocation to the municipal side has increased by $30 million.
According to data prepared by the school department, an astounding 96.6 percent of new property tax dollars have gone to the municipal side of the city – totaling over $40 million since 2008 – while the schools have received just 3.4 percent of that ($1.4 million).
“What I am saying is that over the last eight years our schools have been slowly starved of funding and too many of those who should have been working together uniting for more funding were more interested fighting under some warped conception of power,” Testa said.
Testa forewarned that, unless people get involved and advocate for the schools and demand more from the city, they could expect possibly “draconian” cuts ahead. He said that adding $8 million to the school’s budget, as requested, would not only be a fraction of the money that the department has lost out on since the huge cut in 2010, it is not an unreasonable ask from taxpayers, including himself.
“Our $8 million request will cost the taxpayer whose home is assessed at $200,000 about $160 a year in additional property taxes,” he said. “That's $13.33 per month; $3.07 per week; or 43.8 cents per day. Is that too much to ask – especially in light of the facts I've laid out? I don't think so. I'll gladly pay it. Most people spend more than that on their daily coffee or almost as much on Netflix.”
“If you don't want to see deeper cuts, then you do have to stand up and be counted – and Facebook, with all of its keyboard bravado, doesn't count,” he continued. “You need to show up.”