WARWICK, RI — It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the lead-up to Warwick City Council’s vote to add $3.9 million to the FY20 school budget was a complicated affair, arguably taking more twists and turns than than it needed to.
It should also be no surprise that Mayor Joseph Solomon tried to spin a clear loss for his preferred method of addressing the school budget into a victory.
What ultimately turned the tide against a city council and mayor who had put school sports at risk and offered $1.3 million with significant strings attached was a combination of internal and external forces.
The repeated protests by students and residents were the most visible thing that led to this week’s vote; Councilman Anthony Sinapi’s apparent change of heart over the past month — in light of his prior support for a no-confidence vote in the school department’s finance director — also emerged as a major factor.
While these events clearly affected the final outcome, it took intervention from the state to push the council to its final decision.
State auditor general changed city’s plans
City officials followed guidance from state Auditor General Dennis Hoyle on a different way to provide the additional school funding, and in the process dropped their plan to require a “payback” of $4 million that balances the FY19 budget, nearly four weeks after it ended on June 30.
Hoyle’s proposal essentially put an end to Solomon’s insistence that the school committee illegally withdraw $4 million from a school pension fund, and the mayor’s declarations that the FY19 budget issue was “put to rest” because the mediation sessions about it had closed.
As a result, the FY19 school budget deficit will be addressed without the school department paying anything back to the city, while avoiding a possible Caruolo lawsuit.
(According to a report in the Warwick Beacon, School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus said the school board would “decrease funding towards the school’s private pension plan in each of the next four fiscal years” to balance the FY19 deficit.)
What Hoyle’s plan also did was expose the city paving budget as a thinly-veiled attempt by Solomon and the council to keep money away from the school department while not actually spending it to fix roads.
City officials still playing word games
Even amid the positive development, Council President Steve Merolla apparently couldn’t resist getting in one more shot at the school department, declaring on Tuesday night that the problem in FY19 was overspending by the school committee, and not underfunding by the city council — despite the fact that the lack of city funds was the specific basis for mediation on the FY19 budget.
Following the council vote, Solomon claimed that it resulted from collaboration among city and school officials, contrary to his own decisions to walk away from mediation over the FY19 budget and continued attempts to paint the school committee as irresponsible.
Of course, this is nothing new. Solomon and the council have made a habit of attacking the school committee instead of addressing their own budget missteps, essentially using the school department as a scapegoat for what are, in the end, the city’s problems to fix.
And in their rush to have the final word, Solomon and Merolla are being highly selective in how they characterize the vote on Tuesday night, with the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s July 31 deadline looming for students to participate in sports.
Consider how that vote actually differs from the terms of the original council resolution: The school department won’t be paying back the $4 million for FY19 in the way the council wanted; the city is paying more than the $1.3 million it offered for FY20; and the school committee gets to restore many of the items that it had listed for elimination, beyond school sports.
The one thing that city officials did achieve is the new requirement that they be involved with the school committee’s work on the FY21 budget, a small “win” in the scope of this whole situation — and a dubious one, as it’s not at all clear that city involvement in the school budget would actually result in significant savings or improvements.
Conclusion: Tuesday night’s vote wasn’t the victory lap that city officials are claiming it was, and they still have bumps to navigate on the road ahead.