CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed the withdrawal of pension funds among the School Department’s budget balancing steps. While the withdrawal is part of the FY19 budget mediation agreement, the Schools have refused to take this step.
WARWICK, RI — The Warwick School Committee and Superintendent Philip Thornton say Mayor Joseph J. Solomon has told them the City won’t continue mediation of the FY19 School budget, and won’t mediate the Schools FY20 budget except to discuss sports and clubs funding.
Solomon says that since the FY19 school budget mediation solution, withdrawing $4 million from the School pension fund to balance the Schools budget, was agreed to by both parties, “That matter has been put to rest.”
A legal opinion from a tax attorney cast doubt on the feasibility of that solution, however.
Cory J. Bilodeau, tax attorney with McLaughlin Quinn in Boston, MA, hired by Warwick Schools to investigate the legality of withdrawing the pension funds, said using the money for any purpose other than paying pension benefits is prohibited by federal law. Withdrawing the money for the budget will incur penalties from the IRS, at that agency’s discretion, including the possible loss of the entire fund’s tax exempt status, he said. That penalty would be applied retroactively, requiring back taxes to be paid for each year of the fund’s existence. The withdrawal will also carry a 15 percent penalty on the withdrawn amount. Fifteen percent of the $4 million would be $600,000.
Solomon did not immediately respond to a follow-up question on if he is relying on a competing legal opinion on the legality of withdrawing pension funds for budget spending.
Solomon said the City will continue to participate in mediation on the FY20 budget, which faces a reported $7.7 million shortfall, and will require cutting several programs and positions, including school sports, according to the Warwick School Department.
“As we prepare to mediate the FY19-FY20 budget, my priorities will continue to be that of the schoolchildren, and the sports and extracurricular activities that they deserve,” Solomon said.
Calling the City’s position “destructive,” the School Committee reiterated the steps they’ll take to balance Warwick Schools budget, noting that the Mayor’s position would require withdrawing $4 million from the school pension fund to balance the FY19 budget and also cutting a number of programs, positions and line items the Committee said it must prioritize ahead of sports and club funding.
“These cuts need to be addressed before, or in conjunction with, sports and clubs,” Superintendent Phil Thornton and School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus stated in a joint news release to media.
The cuts include:
- All textbooks have been cut / no textbooks will be purchased (this includes e-books and other digital media).
- All classroom Teacher Assistants in Grades 1 and 2 have been cut.
- All custodial hours have been reduced by 12%.
- All Middle and High School Assistance Counselors positions havebeen cut (these positions are part of a statewide program utilized in all public schools to educate students on the perils of substance abuse and to provide assistance and support to students and families in crisis).
- Eliminated four maintenance staff who are critical to the operation.
- 90% of all technology hardware has been cut, jeopardizing thedistrict initiative to provide Chromebooks for all Middle and High School students.
- All teacher professional development and workshops have beencut.
“We implore the Mayor to come to the table to discuss the budget for both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 for the benefit of the students, employees and all Warwick constituents,” the release reads.
“I will not allow the emotions of our students, parents, faculty or staff to be used as pawns as these discussions proceed,” Solomon said in a statement, “I remain committed to ensuring Warwick remains fiscally responsible and that the monies in any budget are spent wisely and for the greater good of our community. I continue to encourage all those involved with these discussion to remember the needs and quality of education that our students deserve. As always, I remain committed to our students, and hope this next round of mediation results in productive discussions and a positive outcome.”
Solomon also did not immediately respond to a follow-up question asking if he would suggest different priorities for the School Department to restore sports and club programs ahead of the other items.
Tuesday, Solomon’s press secretary Courtney Marciano said the Mayor is not limiting mediation talks to just sports/extracurricular activities. All matters related to the school budget are on the table for discussion, she said.
Marciano said the two parties are in talks to select a mediator and will announce a date for mediation on FY20 to begin once that person is chosen.Warwick Schools Budget Press Release