Rhode Island · School Talk

Some Straight Talk About Why Students in Warwick Are Crying At a Microphone And Storming City Hall

While hoards of Warwick students headed to the microphone at last night’s school committee meeting, many in tears over the elimination of all sports and clubs from the budget, it is unlikely that any of them understand the recklessness that got them to this painful place.

When you have already closed schools and laid off staff, all that is left to cut are things like teaching assistants, sports, and clubs.

As city officials work hard to muddy the waters and confuse the public, one point must not be lost in the conversation: The operating budget is the budget schools have for daily operations. It includes teachers’ salaries and benefits, pencils, books, heat and electricity. And sports.

Bond dollars cannot, by law, be used for the operating budget. So when City Hall talks about how they’ve approved millions in bond dollars, those dollars cannot, by law, fund sports. Or clubs. Or teachers’ assistants. Or textbooks. Or salaries. Or medical expenses. They are reserved for very specific projects like HVAC, roofs, and ADA compliance and they must be approved by RIDE and by the voters.

The truth is that the city council of Warwick has only given the schools an increase of $14,396 for their operating budget since 2010. As contractual expenses have risen exponentially, the city has given the district a monetary increase equivalent to a new Honda Civic— to serve close to 9,000 students.

Warwick is the quintessential example of city leaders and school committee members kicking the can down the road for so long that catastrophe becomes inevitable. As enrollment plummeted, unneeded buildings were kept open and staff levels remained at levels for a student population that no longer existed. Superintendent Thornton was hired in large part to finally do the painful job of closing buildings and since his arrival, they have closed one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools. And since 2010, the district has cut staff from 1,038 to 850 and cut support staff by almost 25 percent. They have also cut 5 administrative positions.

Fixed costs still go up even-though you close buildings, especially when there are state mandates to which a district must adhere. Warwick had to implement full day kindergarten despite level funding from the city. The fact that they finally closed buildings is what has kept the schools open for business the past five years. They should have started closing buildings over a decade ago.

Pension expenses alone are up $3 million since 2010—$677,000 just next year. Warwick is a self-insured district and medical costs are up $3.2 million next year (14.9 percent). Teacher raises for next year total $2,355,000. So if we add the fixed costs of pension increase, medical increase, and teacher raises the total increase is approximately $6,200,000.

Raises? Yes. Teachers wanted in on the raises that police and fire were getting in the city of Warwick. In order to get long overdue language changes to antiquated contract language that was literally hurting kids on a daily basis, raises were predictably part of the negotiation. And retroactive raises were an unforeseen cost that came out of binding arbitration. Step increases are automatic and baked into state law—those cannot be negotiated. Even if the teachers’ union were to agree to re-open the contract to help offset medical costs or delay raises, the step increases cannot be part of that conversation.

So, let’s ask Mayor Solomon and the city council directly, “what did you give the schools for the operating budget in 2010? What is the approved city appropriation for the operating budget for next year?”

Mayor Solomon also seems to misunderstand his role. He has promised to put sports back in the budget but he has zero power to make that happen. A few weeks back he announced his big idea—if the city started cutting the grass for the schools, the savings could save sports.

But Mayor Solomon doesn’t know what he is talking about. There are 5 school district staff members who cut the 103 acres of grass at 19 locations. They also take care of lining the fields. If the superintendent were to eliminate those 5 positions, the total savings would be $250,000.

The cost of the sports program is $1.35 million.

The Mayor has no authority to decide what the school district’s priorities are and he certainly can’t tell the superintendent which line item will be first to go back into the budget if magic dollars suddenly appear.

But still, in one breath he promises students they will get their sports back and in the next breath claims that he doesn’t believe in playing with students’ emotions. Mayor, you are taking advantage of their emotions to make promises you have no authority to keep.

Smart people have suggested that Warwick needs a 5 year plan. West Warwick was in dire straits in the 90’s. The Auditor General met with city. Citizens sacrificed by enduring  the maximum tax increase for 5 years. Unions made concessions. They got themselves back on track.

So let’s ask Mayor Solomon and the city council, “would you welcome the Auditor General coming in now?

One last bit of information: In 2009, during the recession, cities were allowed to take back 5 percent of the operating budget of schools. Warwick did —and never put it back. That was a $6.2 million loss in one year.*

Moving forward

The school dept has announced that it plans to sue the city under the Caruolo Act. Before the case can head to court, the district must do three things:

  • First, they must balance the budget. They must do that by law anyway.
  • Second, they must apply to the Commissioner for waivers. The application will almost definitely be denied.
  • Third, they must hire experts to look at the books and the educational programming. The Auditor General may or may not get involved. The school department has already said that they would welcome the Auditor General coming in now.

After all these boxes are checked, then it goes to court.

Kids and families need to understand that decades of mismanagement, unsustainable promises, and self-serving political posturing has finally brought the city to its knees and created a situation where students are in tears at a microphone at a public meeting.

Students and parents and taxpayers in Warwick deserve so much better than this. But the writing has been on the wall for a long time and that proverbial can seems to have been kicked for the last time.

Click here to see the the approved 2019-2020 budget and related documents for the Warwick Schools.

*This piece has been updated to correct this figure and the date—I originally wrote $5.6 million in 2010 but the figure is actually $6,198,436, which I have rounded to $6.2, taken back by the city in 2009.

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