The Warwick School Committee will commence budget hearings on Monday to work on the FY2020 budget (which begins July 1), despite still facing an approximately $4.6 million deficit in the current year’s budget, which ends June 30.
It’s a precarious position for the schools to be in. They continue to meet with city officials regarding a potential infusion of money to help resolve that budget gap, but those meetings have been ongoing since last November and have still not yielded any signs of a compromise or anything substantial.
School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus said the city cancelled a meeting last week in order to take more time going over budgetary documents requested by their legal counsel, and that the two sides are set to meet again “soon,” but she did not feel that soon meant the meeting would occur before the committee begins its budget hearings.
So how exactly can the school committee and administration account for crafting a new budget when the current one has yet to be resolved?
“It's complex but it's simple,” said school finance director Anthony Ferrucci on Wednesday afternoon. “I'm approaching Monday night's meeting not addressing the current year. Whatever the results are from the current year will speak for themselves.”
Ferrucci said he plans to forecast next year’s budget using the baseline of the FY19 budget, which amounted to around $164 million, and project the fiscal need based on expenses that can already be accounted for.
Some of those expenses include out of district tuition for the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) Pathways program, which provides students the option to attend school in other districts at the expense of their home district. That cost was budgeted at $399,000 in FY19, but Ferrucci forecast that the cost for FY20 would be closer to $1.6 million. The budgeted number was so low because while adopting the current budget the school committee attempted to get a waiver from RIDE for those costs, citing a significant financial burden. That request was denied, and now the state is calling for the bill.
Other expenses to note include personnel salary raises that amount to $3 million between Warwick Teachers’ Union members and WISE Union members and $6.5 million in non-staff-related increases, including $4 million in anticipated increases for fringe benefits. All told, when Ferrucci crunched the numbers back in February, the schools anticipated $12 million in additional expenses above and beyond the current deficit for next year.
“It's a big number,” Ferrucci said of what number the department has arrived at in terms of financial need. Ferrucci said that Superintendent Philip Thornton had already begun the process of identifying potential cuts in the budget, but declined to comment on exact figures until they come out during the hearings, which will run four days between Monday and Thursday next week.
Bachus said that, with three new members of the school committee being elected in November, adding an additional hearing day was crucial to ensuring they understood the budgetary process.
“This is basically a brand-new team,” she said.
That new team will have to grapple with perhaps the most dire financial situation seen by a school committee in Warwick in recent memory, as the schools were forced to cut janitorial staff and some of their supplies (like floor wax) and the $102,000 budget for Mentor Rhode Island to try and close the budgetary hole that still remains unresolved for this year.
As of Wednesday, those cuts will remain in effect and those services unfunded heading into next week’s hearings, although Ferrucci has voiced in the past that the administration recognizes the need to bring custodians back. The aforementioned $12 million figure from February included the cost of bringing back custodians and the Mentor program.
Unfortunately, that $12 million figure is simply insurmountable given the 4 percent tax levy increase limit.
“We all know $12 million is not going to fly,” Ferrucci said. “We're not legally able to do that.”
Ferrucci said that at this point, he did not have a deadline date from the state Auditor General regarding when the school committee needs to balance the budget. He also said he had hoped that the city and school department would have come to a resolution by this point.
“The facts haven’t changed since we were meeting back in November,” he said. “I was hoping with the change [of school committee members] and the settlement with the elected officials [regarding the lawsuit], we would have this resolved before the 22nd of April.”
Despite the magnitude of the challenge, Bachus and Ferrucci were trying to think positively.
“It'll be a good dialogue next week,” Ferrucci said. “We'll see where it goes and take it a day at a time.”
“Hopefully the trust issue between the schools and the city is improving. I don't want to blame anybody because there is no blame,” said Bachus. “I have to believe that the right things will happen. It's always darkest before the dawn.”
Budget hearings will commence Monday, April 22 and run through Thursday, April 25. All hearing will begin at 5:30 p.m. and be held at Warwick Veterans Middle School.