A hearing scheduled for last night’s City Council meeting in which the Warwick School Department would have presented its results from a third-party audit that analyzed its fiscal and programmatic practices was postponed in light of renewed negotiations between city and school officials, as was revealed on Monday.
A statement released by Catherine Bonang, administrative secretary to Superintendent Philip Thornton, read as follows:
“The City Council President and School Committee Chairperson have jointly agreed to postpone Monday night's presentation of the School Department's audit. This joint postponement will allow the Mayor, the City Council President and School Committee Chairperson the opportunity to meet in an attempt to resolve this complicated situation. A meeting between representatives of each party has been scheduled for Sept. 24, 2018. The presentation before the City Council has been mutually rescheduled to Oct. 2, 2018.”
Thornton deferred to the release, declining to comment further on what exactly prompted the decision to move the meeting or what would be discussed at the Sept. 24 meeting.
City Council President Steve Merolla, however, said that the postponement was the result of the council and the city council’s CPA team having enough time to go over the results of the audit and resume negotiations armed with more information.
“There's a lot more information available as to what they're asking for and we have a better understanding of where they're at and where we're at,” Merolla said on Monday afternoon.
Merolla said that it was “upsetting” that people have been critical of the city for taking its time in handling the school situation, and reiterated that they were forced to grapple with a situation that included former Mayor Scott Avedisian leaving immediately before budget proceedings and a budget that provided level funding to the schools.
“It's taking so long because we didn't have anything to do with the process,” he said. “This mayor didn’t have an opportunity to meet with anyone or figure out anything...We added to the mayor's budget and we still get criticized. It's not an easy process when you're brought in at the end to figure out what you need and what's plausible and not plausible and what's realistic and not realistic.”
Merolla said that the city could only raise $5.8 million from a maximum tax increase in this year’s budget, and that they have to factor in raises stemming from two collective bargaining agreements – one for city employees and one for the police department. The fire department, he mentioned, also remains without a new CBA.
He said that, while he was pleased the schools have reduced the amount in funding needed over the months since they first released a budgetary need of about $8.1 million in city assistance, the council still needs to be realistic as to what they can allocate.
“Is that the direction we’re heading down? That we make promises we can't keep?” he said. “We're capped by state law…We have obligations on the city side and they have obligations to do the best they can in the school department.”
Merolla said that the conversation approaching on Sept. 24 may involve difficult talks on how to make it through this year and then create a more stable strategy for years moving forward.
“Maybe there are ways to plug holes,” he said. “Budgets aren’t made with one vote in June...We want to be making sure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
“I'm, pleased with where we're at now,” Merolla continued. “Hopefully we can get in the same room and figure it out.”
Through a release, Mayor Joseph Solomon said he is, “looking forward to further discussions with both parties as they work to resolve issues surrounding the School Department budget,” and that the meeting with give all parties the opportunity “to fully discuss the audit and any other additional information needed to perform our due diligence on behalf of the taxpayers and students of our city.”
The Warwick School Committee approved a budget in April that concluded they would need an additional $8.1 million from the city in order to balance. Subsequently, the City Council allocated $1.5 million above the level funded budget prepared by Avedisian. The schools have since cut the remainder through extensive staff layoffs and the elimination of student-oriented services.
Solomon offered an additional $1.75 million to the schools in August to restore some of those line items, however the schools maintain that money would only account for $1.75 million of an unfunded liability they cut from the budget – specifically $1.75 million in debt principal and interest payments stemming from a school maintenance bond approved in 2006. That money has not been formally accepted.
Since the widespread cuts, a programmatic audit conducted at the behest of the School Committee has found that a majority of those cuts would be in direct violation of the state’s Basic Education Plan, and that they must be restored. The audit found that the schools could find some money through more staffing cuts, but that they would ultimately need $4 million more from the city to be able to perform educational operations in line with state standards.
The audit would have been presented last night to the council for the first time, but as outlined in this story, has been postponed until the Oct. 2 meeting.