Superintendent Philip Thornton revealed last week a list of potential line items on the chopping block in order to free up money to pay retroactive pay raises for the teachers, which went into effect with the approval of the new collective bargaining agreements between the Warwick School Committee and Warwick Teachers’ Union.
“As you recall last spring, we didn’t contemplate retroactive pay in our estimate to the council,” Thornton said. “Having said that, we want to start having the discussion about what potentially could we reduce to balance the budget.”
While the following line items are merely preliminary ideas at this time, they are items that the school department was at least exploring trimming from its budget. Some of the bigger items among the $1,326,500 in total proposed cuts were:
Various department heads were not excited about the possibility of these cuts.
“That wouldn’t look good at all,” said athletic director Kenneth Rix. “I have three pages of stuff that still needs to be purchased for spring sports.” Rix said these supplies covered everything from uniforms, baseballs and softballs to a new batting cage and safety netting for the baseball diamonds.
Doug Alexander, director of technology for the school district, said that making such a significant cut to his budget would disable him from going forward with his two biggest initiatives remaining for the year – ensuring that a natural disaster wouldn’t cripple the district, and protecting against security breaches in the school’s network.
“Given the experience of other districts a far as losses and water damage, it highlights the importance of having a business continuity and disaster recovery plan when it comes to your software and your network – and that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about doing and preparing a bid for,” he said. “The software side is network security…we really sorely need better network security because a data breach would be the last thing we need in this environment.”
In regards to potentially cutting counseling services for hospitalized and vision-impaired children, Toll Gate teacher Matt Hodge gave a strong rebuke during public comments.
“To go through departments and make it seem like, ‘Well, in order to pay those teachers we're going to have to take money away from visually impaired kids or kids in hospitals.’ It's shameful, what you're doing,” Hodge said. “You had no problem spending money like drunken sailors on Gorton and the new health club at Toll Gate and all kinds of other things. But now you're going to take services away from really needy kids because of the ‘greedy teachers’? It's a public relations game that is really distasteful.”
Union president Darlene Netcoh criticized the school administration in a statement, saying that in their $160 million budget they should be able to find cuts that don’t affect student learning and achievement.
“I am sure that the WSC and its administration can find savings that do not affect the services that students receive,” she said in a statement. “For example, they recently posted two newly created assistant principal positions at a cost of roughly $150,000 for each. Also, they do not need a public relations firm, which represents $100,000 in this year’s budget. Eliminating these three costs would save $400,000.”
The two new administrative positions Netcoh mentioned are an “Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning” for Winman Junior High School and an “Assistant Principal of Climate
and Culture” for Warwick Veterans Junior High School.
But why do these proposed cuts even have to be discussed in the first place?
The school department, by law, must operate on a balanced budget. The cost of giving teachers raises – which includes a retroactive pay raise for last year and raises for the current and next year – is actualized at $4,586,801, at an average of a 2.3 percent effective pay increase.
The council – in an attempt to push the two quarreling sides into solving the contract dispute – level funded the school department’s budget over the summer with the verbal agreement that they would get make additional money available to pay teachers a salary increase once a contract was successfully negotiated. However it was never actually agreed upon in terms of how much that figure would actually be.
Should the council only release the money that was originally projected by the school department to be needed (at the time, they did not anticipate factoring in retroactive pay raises to the salary increase), the school administration would need to make about $1.68 million in budget cuts in order to balance their budget.
The school department will only know exactly how much needs to be cut from their budget when they appear before the Warwick City Council on Wednesday, which is when the council will take action on how much funding to release. The school department is asking for $4 million from the council, which would leave around $600,000 to be cut.
“We do realize this is higher than what was discussed in June 2017,” Ferrucci writes in the memo sent to the council outlining the mathematics behind the situation. “As a reminder, at that point in time, a retro pay raise was not being considered.”
Ultimately the amount that is released by the council is up to them.
In a conversation Saturday, City Council President Joseph Solomon was not receptive to approving additional funds beyond what had been withheld.
The school committee seemed positive that they would be receiving at least $3 million, and hopeful that they could perhaps secure more, as they argue they could not have predicted the costs of hypothetical retroactive pay increases during budgetary hearings.
“The city can say we said [$3 million] and it’s three. If they want to stick to the three, that’s their prerogative,” said school committee member David Testa during school committee’s Jan. 10 meeting. “My hope is they would see the math here – the math isn’t lying. I would hope they would give us somewhere closer to the [$4.5 million], and not closer to the three.”
School committee chairwoman Beth Furtado took the moment to speak on her frustration with the level of funding the school department has received, both locally and from the state.
“The school department, in my opinion, is grossly underfunded and has been grossly underfunded for years,” she said. “We’re at a level now that we were at previous to FY2009, before we even hit double digits. To go 10 years and not have an increase, I believe it’s wrong.”
“It also needs to change at the state level,” she continued. “The funding formula is, in my opinion again, grossly out of whack. When four districts get 75 percent of the funding from the state to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and the other 33 are left to share 25 percent of that funding, it’s wrong. The ones that can affect that change are the reps and the senators that sit on Smith Hill. They’re the ones that need to do something about it, and the ones from Warwick really need to step up.”