Supporters of Mentor Rhode Island drew television crews and took to the podium during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Warwick School Committee to reiterate their concern and disappointment at the current state of the FY 2019 school budget – which as of press time (prior to last night’s City Council meeting), did not have funding available to restore $102,000 to fund the program in the city.
“We were there specifically so that they didn’t forget that they cut us and that we should be at the top of the list of priorities for restoration,” said Jo-Ann Schofield, executive director for Mentor Rhode Island. “I do think we accomplished those two goals.”
School administrators and school committee members have been vocal since electing to cut Mentor RI’s $102,000 in funding in June – a small fraction of $6.6 million in total cuts to close a huge budgetary shortfall – that nobody is in support of cutting the program’s funding, a point that was brought up once again by administrators on Tuesday night.
“I think everybody in this room is in agreement that the draconian cuts we needed to take in order for the school committee to balance – legally – their budget, nobody wants,” said Anthony Ferrucci, finance director for the Warwick School Department. “We're moving forward with every opportunity to rectify that before the beginning of school.”
Still, this didn’t stop Mentor Rhode Island advocates from hoisting protest signs and making their presence known during the public comment period.
“It's a program that is done through love, through community and care,” said Doug Schobel, who has participated in the mentoring program for 17 years. “It's for the love of the kids and support of the kids. We have 160 kids that need a friend, that need a sounding board, that need that unconditional person in their life that they can depend on.”
Schobel implored the committee to find $102,000 somewhere else in the budget, calling that amount a “pittance” relative to the overall budget figure, which amounted to $171 million as approved by the school committee in late May.
Responding to questions about why a volunteer-based program needs $102,000 to operate during an interview on Wednesday, Schofield explained that the money pays for two mentor coordinators (one for students in the elementary level, and one for the secondary level). These coordinators are entirely responsible for screening, training and matching the program’s 160 mentors with students and act as the constant point of contact between educational staff and volunteer mentors. Just this past year, there were 43 new mentors that needed trained and matched.
Schofield said that the organization cannot simply take funds from other programs to sustain their Warwick program – by far the biggest program in their network that includes Woonsocket, Newport, Middletown, Pawtucket and one school in Providence – because the funding for those programs was gained through commitments through those municipalities’ budgets or through grants.
“We have obligations to those funders,” Schofield said.
The other cut causing much concern and generating outrage during public comment was the decision to cut 15 custodians to save $750,000 – one of the largest single cuts made to help balance the budget. As a result, there will be no night-shift custodians to clean schools after they close, meaning after-school programs and activities will be unlikely to run at all. Further, the school department cut the funding for floor wax and stripper, among other janitorial supplies.
“I am concerned about the safety and health of these children,” said Betty O’Leary, a head custodian, adding that after-school custodians were crucial to ensuring that desks and classrooms are disinfected especially during flu seasons. “You're asking my staff to do twice the amount of work.”
“I take very much pride in my school being an extremely clean school, as some of you have commented to me. I work very, very hard, and the saddest thing is I am going to fail because of you,” O’Leary continued. “Failure is not in me. So, what am I to do? My best. But I need you to do your best too. That's only fair to these children, to this community and to every single one of us.”
Once again, the school committee did not pretend that the issues they were faced with were not of high priority.
“In my mind it's imperative that the second shift custodians be number one for the money, and that Mentor's $102,000 be number two,” said Eugene Nadeau, vice chair of the committee. “It would be criminal if those two things were not put back into our budget.”
Although the school committee and school administrators were due to appear before the Warwick City Council Wednesday night, the committee requested a continuance to the first meeting in September in order to wait for the results of fiscal and programmatic audits occurring currently within the department, as it would provide for more enlightened discussion once those reports are released.
“I'm going to believe that the City Council wants to work with us,” said school committee member at-large Terri Merdeiros.
Ethan Hartley is a volunteer mentor for the Mentor Rhode Island program as of March 2018.