The Warwick City Council and Warwick School Committee, on Monday and Tuesday evenings respectively, passed resolutions that, on the surface, appear to pave the way for an allocation of about $4 million from the city in order for the schools to bring back school sports, various programming and after school activities – all of which (along with much more) were cut in June to avert a $7.7 million deficit.
But before any student athletes, proud varsity parents or eager band musicians feel inclined to celebrate and heave a sigh of relief, it must be noted that this “step in the right direction,” as Superintendent Philip Thornton called it on Wednesday, is by no means a step over the finish line symbolizing that these necessary programs have been successfully restored.
No matter what, the city council will have to review the school committee’s resolution and agree to its terms – then identify a source of funding within their budget and approve the allocation of that funding, which would also have to be approved by Mayor Joseph Solomon – before the schools could officially flip the switch and restore what has been cut.
But there is another speed bump ahead, too – which could be problematic considering Thornton’s take that the schools need funding for sports programming to become available by July 31 (at the latest) to ensure they can operate.
This is because of a difference in the resolutions approved by each governmental body. However, depending on how the city council, Mayor Solomon and the school committee react to this difference, it could ultimately be a non-factor. Late Wednesday afternoon, there was hopeful talk from those involved that a resolution before the end of the month was indeed a real possibility.
Still, understanding the big picture of how both sides got to this point remains important.
The resolution put forth and eventually passed by the city council started off as a resolution that specifically only mentioned providing the schools with $1.3 million to restore school sports. As the Beacon reported on July 11, this allocation would only happen if the schools created a resolution of their own that would commit them to using the money to restore sports, and nothing else from their 46-item-long list of cuts that were made to balance their budget.
However, Ward 8 freshman Councilman and frequent school committee meeting attendee Anthony Sinapi thought – citing numerous discussions with School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus – that such a request would get slapped down soundly by the school committee, whose members have clearly stated they see sports as just one item amidst a huge list of other priorities. The schools also have no legal obligation to listen to the city in terms of how it should spend appropriated funds.
“By doing the $1.3 million and saying it's only for sports...We're basically continuing the back and forth, 'It's their fault, it's our fault, it's their fault, it's our fault.' Over and over and over again,” Sinapi said. “We have an opportunity to resolve it here and now, and we should.”
Sinapi proposed an amendment that would specifically grant $4 million to the schools to satisfy items 1-17 on their priority list of programs/items to restore, which would include sports and after school activities – provided that the school committee adopted a resolution of their own that: 1.) Committed them to a “thorough review of each of its budgeted items in comparison to comparable districts”; 2.) Committed them to develop a “plan of action to reduce expenditures”; and 3.) Committed them to allow the city council to participate in both of these processes.
The council’s resolution also stated that, should the school committee agree to its terms and pursue the deal, it would not preclude them from continuing mediation discussions with the city in regards to their remaining budgetary deficit, nor would it preclude them from pursuing legal remedies to obtain more funding – meaning the schools could still sue the city if they accepted the terms of the resolution.
Various members of the city council had issues with Sinapi’s amendment, which he filed as a unanimous consent docket item, meaning that some council members only received the amendment the same night they would have to vote on it. This ultimately prompted an amendment to Sinapi’s amendment, which – most importantly – removed his numbers-specific language regarding an allocation of $4 million and instead left things more vague.
The resolution, as it was adopted in its final form unanimously by the city council, reads:
“Therefore be it resolved that the Warwick City Council hereby commits through this Resolution that it will appropriate the necessary additional funds
, including an additional $1.3 Million Dollars, to the School Department for fiscal year 2020 for funding of the priority items No. 1 through No. 17 from the School Department’s adopted budget for the 2019-2020 school year as agreed by the parties through mediation
, provided that the Warwick School Committee first agrees to the above stated commitments, through duly adopted Resolutions of the School Committee.”
The bolded phrases are perhaps the most important pieces of the whole resolution. The resolution states the schools would get $1.3 million to restore sports programming in a prompt manner that would enable them to schedule for those programs, but it also clearly stipulates that the school department and city should utilize mediation to find out specifically how much funding they require to restore the other priority items identified in items 1-17. There is currently no selected mediator for such a task.
In effect, the resolution holds true on the city’s oft-stated commitment to restore school sports, but it simultaneously does not take the schools at their word that the dollar amount necessary to restore the remaining priority needs is what they claim it to be.
“Councilman Sinapi put in a resolution of no confidence in Mr. Ferrucci,” said City Council President Steve Merolla on Wednesday morning. “He said that because he doesn't know if their numbers are accurate or not. I think what we've said is we'll agree to what is, in essence $2.7 million [in remaining need following the $1.3 million for sports], but we'd like to have a mediator look at what we're stating what the numbers are and what Mr. Ferrucci is stating. And we'll abide by that process and that decision.”
What the Warwick School Committee approved unanimously on Tuesday night was a resolution that satisfies almost all of the provisions of the city council’s resolution – except for that crucial piece regarding mediation.
Instead, the school committee’s resolution puts in a clear dollar figure of $3,985,474, which once appropriated will go to restore the items referenced by the council in their resolution. It does not mention accepting $1.3 million for sports and then separately mediating a way towards rectifying the remaining approximately $2.7 million for everything else.
Thornton said on Wednesday that the school committee was committed to scheduling a special meeting as soon as they can in order to accept any appropriations approved by the city council. The council would first need to schedule a special meeting of their own in order to discuss this appropriation. The school committee’s resolution does not mandate a specific date in which the council must meet by to comply – rather stating that they should meet “immediately.”
“I think what Councilman Sinapi has done is heroic,” said Bachus at the city council meeting on Monday night. “We are willing to work on this. This is the first time anything has been put into black and white, into writing. But it really needs to happen before the end of this month, not the end of next month.”
During a phone conversation on Wednesday, Merolla said he hadn’t seen a copy of the school committee’s resolution yet, but indicated he had received word about their straying from the terms outlined in the council’s resolution. He expressed some frustration with the development.
“Could we have a special meeting? Yeah,” he said. “The question is what did they do? My understanding is what they did [Tuesday] night is they didn't agree on $1.3 million for sports, they said, ‘Give us $4 million.’”
When asked if he was concerned that the school committee’s resolution may have jeopardized the tentative arrangement that was reached, Thornton indicated his hopes otherwise.
“The clock is ticking in July. I know we share a common goal of doing what's right for the district,” he said. “We may not agree on the exact dollar amount of what schools should receive, but based on conversations we have had I think we agree the need is in the area of funding of $4 million. Hopefully we can achieve some clarity on this and have the council meet in short order to allocate the $4 million.”
During his weekly morning interview with the Beacon, Mayor Solomon seemed comfortable that the situation was, indeed, moving towards a resolution.
“I made a promise and a pledge that I like to think is fulfilled,” he said. “I think all the council members have similar views and all the school committee members have similar views. You have three different segments of the public sector that are in agreement with that particular issue.”
Later in the afternoon on Wednesday, Sinapi indicated that the three sides – Solomon representing the executive branch, Merolla and himself representing the legislative branch, and Chairwoman Bachus representing the school committee – had been tentatively discussing a plan for the city to allocate the $4 million as outlined in the school committee’s resolution, without the need for mediation, and then call the budget issue closed for the current fiscal year, at least in terms of the city’s financial share. Solomon thought as much as $3 million could come from funding for paving without sacrificing that program as it could be funded through long-range mechanisms (presumably bonding). The remaining $1 million Solomon said could be found in cuts to other municipal line items.
Talk of a special meeting of the city council, potentially as early as Saturday, was discussed, but nothing has been finalized as of press time.