WARWICK, RI — In a clear rebuke to Mayor Joseph Solomon, the Warwick City Council this week approved a plan to cover the lingering school budget deficit from FY19 and pay nearly $4 million more toward the FY20 school budget.
The unanimous vote for the new plan is a welcome departure for the council, which until this week had offered $1.3 million for the FY20 budget under a plan by President Steve Merolla that would have required the school committee to only spend the money to restore sports — disregarding decades of legal precedent that prohibit exactly that kind of maneuver — and generally followed Solomon’s lead on the school budget.
Solomon had spent the spring and early summer declaring that the FY19 school budget was “put to rest” and that he’d only discuss sports and school clubs as part of any mediation on the FY20 spending plan.
In both cases, Solomon’s assertions — insisting that the school committee should illegally withdraw pension funds to balance its budget and later denying that he had limited discussion to sports for the current fiscal year — created less confidence in his handling of the situation, rather than more.
With the city council’s vote this week, Solomon’s plans have been shot down, and the city could be spared the prospect of more embarrassing headlines and more scenes of students protesting city hall over threats to eliminate sports.
Those cuts, it should be noted, would never have been considered if the council had provided the money for those items in the first place — and this week’s resolution by the city council suggests that its members understand that.
Consider how they’re moving money within the city budget to pay the school department in FY20: $1 million from the city’s existing surplus; $1 million from the city contingency fund; $1.085 million from paving; $600,000 from the city legal budget; and $300,000 from fire department overtime.
This money has been in the FY20 budget since the council approved the spending plan in May — yet only now, with the very real possibility of a loss in court if the school committee were to pursue a Caruolo lawsuit, has the council decided that it should commit more money to education.
And yet, that decision is not without caveats; the council resolution includes language that suggests the final amount could be less if the mediation process finds other places where the school budget can be cut.
Council’s plan leaves lingering concerns
Typical for this city council, the issue isn’t completely settled; this week’s resolution adds the wrinkle of requiring the school department to create a process for line-item review of its budget, which would also include the city council and mayor, in the coming years.
Essentially, city officials have given themselves a seat at the school committee’s budget discussions and (presumably) a voice in how the school budget is developed.
This is the latest in a number of attempts by the city council to have more sway over the school budget, which include the decision in 2017 to set aside $3 million to pay for the teacher contract that former Mayor Scott Avedisian helped settle, last month’s no-confidence vote in school Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci, and Merolla’s attempt to attach significant strings to the earlier $1.3 million funding offer.
Realistically, there’s little chance that the council can somehow find ways to reduce the school budget, in the face of recent consolidation and the fact that some 87 percent of Warwick teachers are at the top salary step, putting a significant limit on what cuts can be made.
This is why, when faced with cutting $7.7 million from its FY20 budget, the school committee listed things like sports and after school activities, teacher assistants, building improvements, mentoring, uniforms, equipment for schools, and transportation: None of those are governed by contracts or state education mandates.
It also remains a question whether the city council’s intervention will have any positive impact, since the recent record for the city budget is not that good.
After passing a budget two years ago with no tax increase, the council was forced to raise taxes to the state-imposed maximum of 4 percent in FY19, and very close to that limit in FY20, with the recent citywide revaluation the only thing preventing a repeat.
Given this backdrop, the idea that city officials would get more involved in the school’s budget process should be cause for more concern, not less, since they have plenty of work to do on the city budget: The FY19 audit still has not been released; the firefighters contract is still not resolved; a used ladder truck recently broke down, requiring tens of thousands of dollars in repairs; and the city surplus that was once $24 million has potentially fallen to about half of that in two budget years, according to Solomon.
Conclusion: The city council delivered a direct challenge to Mayor Solomon’s stance on the school budget, but by trying to force its way into the school department’s operations, could endanger any actual progress.