WARWICK, RI — The City Council OK’d releasing $3 million set aside for the School Department contingent on a settled teacher’s contract as promised during May’s budget hearings, but councilors and the body’s legal counsel ruled granting the extra $1.5 million the schools asked for would be violate the city charter.
The vote to approve the $3 million passed unanimously, 8 – 0, with City Councilor Steve McAllister absent.
Councilor Richard Corley pointed out that the city charter prohibits the council from adding to the $3 million figure agreed upon in May without Mayor Scott Avedisian’s specific request. Corley said he ran his assessment of the situation past City Council legal counsel John Harrington, who confirmed his read of the council’s ability to act.
Corley said the Mayor would have had to ask for the additional funding the school department requested for them to be able to legally grant the request.
“We are bound by the charter to not go any higher than what the mayor has requested,” Coreley said. The mayor may still ask the council to add more to the school budget until the end of the fiscal year, in June, Corley said.
Until that happens, “They’re in the wrong place,” Corley said.
Councilman Jeremy Rix said he had also come to the same conclusion.
“It is also clear the way that the School Committee, the School Department is required to ask for additional funds, and that was not followed,” Rix said.
During the School Committee’s Jan. 10 meeting, Superintendent Phil Thornton said that without an additional $1.5 million, about $1.3 million in cuts would have to be made to the School Budget, due to an unpredictable resolution to the school teacher contract that required more money for retroactive pay increases than he had planned for when requesting the school budget in May.
After the meeting, School Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci, school finance director, said it was the 2 percent pay raise not budgeted for FY2018 that put the School Department over the $3 million set aside for the contract negotiation.
Ferrucci said it’s not reasonable to expect him or other school officials to anticipate the terms of the contract in advance. Also, he said, officials took the council’s sequester of the $3 million contingent on the contract being settled as a direction to do what was required to reach an agreement.
Thornton said the legality of their request for the extra $1.5 million did not come up during his conversations with members of the City Council before the meeting.
“I did have some conversations with some City Council members regarding this but the legality of it never came up,” he said.
He said he and the School Committee will now figure out what to do with the budget at their special meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Warwick Veterans Jr. High. Thornton said he will also explore asking Mayor Avedisian to request the additional funding for another try.
Had the extra funding been voted on, Council President Joseph Solomon Sr. reminded the audience that approving the funding did not guarantee that the items suggested by Thornton for cuts would necessarily be saved, or even that that money would necessarily be spent on the teacher’s contract. Solomon pointed out the School Committee has discretion to do what they choose with the money the Council appropriates.
Councilman Steve Merolla said he doubted the money the department was requesting was really needed for the reasons the School Committee had given in any event.
“I believe these issues can be resolved with what we budgeted,” Merolla said.
During the meeting, Corley wondered why the School Committee was asking the City Council to act outside of the City Charter, and characterizing the Council in the media as a roadblock in the system.
“Which is why I am very much confused to be reading in the paper that the Warwick School Committee was saying that it would be the City Council’s fault,” if the extra $1.5 million in funding was not approved.
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