Not surprisingly, since state and federal laws regulate most of the waivers sought by the Warwick School Committee, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner denied a list of cuts and proposed fees to balance the school budget.
The committee requested the commissioner’s approval to implement fees for sports and busing to help offset its budget shortfall as well as to make cuts, such as a reduction in school bus monitors. The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union immediately objected to the fees, citing the promise of a free education from kindergarten through grade 12.
Had Commissioner Ken Wagner ruled otherwise, the Rhode Island Department of Education would have likely been dragged into a legal battle and, undeniably, the Warwick community would have been in turmoil. Few gave the list of waiver requests a chance of approval, yet, as we see it, it was a necessary step in the larger picture of whether schools receive additional city funding. If the schools sue for more funding, as may happen, they now have the argument that they sought and were denied relief by the state.
A lawsuit is not a welcome action regardless. It places the decision process in the courts when, clearly, Warwick should decide what is best for itself. In addition, as Mayor Joseph Solomon points out, it could become a financial sinkhole for both the schools and the administration.
Worse still, a suit would divide the community against itself. We see it as scarring relationships and causing rifts that could take many years to heal. Divisive behavior, as we have seen throughout contract disputes in recent history, is already commonly seen in school affairs – and it benefits nobody, especially the students.
This is not to suggest that the School Committee should rule out a lawsuit if, in fact, it cannot strike an agreement with the city and feels the approved level of funding would dramatically compromise education. A suit is a fallback, but that said, a poor one.
We are encouraged by Monday’s talk between the mayor and school officials. Hopefully it is the beginning of a dialogue that will avert a suit and ensure a good school system going forward.
This, however, is not an easy gap to close. It’s going to take sacrifices on both sides. Consider the challenge:
l In round numbers, schools requested an additional $8 million in city funding as a result of cuts in state funding, contractual obligations towards salaries and pensions and state mandated costs that are increasing exponentially, such as special education and costs for servicing students who go out of district or to charter schools.
l The City Council approved an additional $1.5 million, leaving schools $6.5 short.
l At Monday’s meeting, schools suggested they could get by with an added $5.3 million.
Thus far, Mayor Solomon hasn’t made a counteroffer or any commitments. His reasoning that he can’t make any promises until he knows what is available first is fair. Furthermore, as he points out, any changes in budget allocations, assuming that is the action to be taken, would require City Council approval.
Meanwhile, as painful as it was for the School Committee to make cuts and draft a list of waivers, with the rejection of the waivers it must turn to even deeper cuts to balance the budget – though the implications of this reality, for now, are unknown.
The sooner the city administration defines the extent of its ability to compromise, the sooner the schools can define the extent of its cuts.
Perhaps that middle ground won’t be found and a suit will become the move, but for the administration to not try would be a travesty.