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Thornton: Budget Cut of $1.3 Million Required Without Council Boosting Teacher Contract Fund

[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] The Warwick School Committee during their Jan. 10 meeting at Warwick Veterans Jr. High.
[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] The Warwick School Committee during their Jan. 10 meeting at Warwick Veterans Jr. High.
WARWICK, RI — Superintendent Phil Thornton told the School Committee and about 30 people gathered for Wednesday’s School Committee meeting at Warwick Veterans Jr. High’s auditorium that the district needs $1.5 million in addition to the $3 million set aside by the Warwick City Council to pay teacher back pay they pledged as part of the new teacher contract signed in November.

In preparation for the possibility that the Council doesn’t add $1.5 million to the $3 million they set aside pending a negotiated teachers agreement in June, Thornton said, he had prepared a list of$1,326,500 in possible cuts that would allow the Warwick School Department to meet its contractual obligation to the teachers. Since the cuts can’t come from personnel in the middle of the year, Thornton said, his proposed cuts, which he said he offered as a starting point for members of the School Committee to consider, would be from purchase services, supplies and materials, and capital equipment.

Should the City Council decline to add $1.5 million to the $3 million they’d already agreed to give the School Department for settling the contract in June  during their scheduled meeting Jan. 17, the School Committee will convene a special meeting Jan. 18 to discuss possible cuts to the budget to make up the difference.

“I’m not relishing the 17th, and I’m not relishing the 18th,” said School Committee member David Testa.

The teachers and parents in the room did not take the news well.

“Why did you sign a contract if you couldn’t pay for it? What happened” one man asked from the back of the auditorium.

“The retro (pay) piece,” said Testa.

Later, during public comment, teachers expressed dismay with the situation.

“The only conclusion I can make is that you purposely signed a contract in November that you knew you couldn’t pay for,” said Michael Pierce, a teacher at Warwick Veterans Junior High. “All the funding problems you have identified were in place long before the agreement was signed, they were all well known. You knew all the budget facts, or you should have. It’s your legal responsibility.It is your legal responsibility to manage the school district budget. It is not our responsibility, the teachers to make sure your budget works. It’s not the City Council’s job to make sure you budget correctly. Basically, it seems to me that you are using our contracts, pretty boldly, using our contracts as leverage, to get more money out of the City Council,” Pierce said.

“If you didn’t know, then you’re not doing your job. If you did know, you should have the money,” Pierce added.

“The buck doesn’t seem to stop anywhere. Things happen like, “how do we pay this contract that we don’t have any money to pay for? Now what do we do? That reflects poorly on leadership. I’m sorry,” said Matt Hodge, a history teacher at Toll Gate High.

After the meeting Thornton said he and the negotiating members of the School Committee did realize they would need to ask for the additional money from the City Council during the negotiations, and the fact they were in essence agreeing to pay that wasn’t yet budgeted was made clear to the Warwick Teachers’s Union.

“To us, the greater good was to settle the contracts,” Thornton said.

City Councilman Jeremy Rix, contacted outside of the meeting Wednesday, said agreeing to terms they didn’t have funding to provide seemed odd to him.

“The School Committee asked for the amount of additional money that the Council set aside in May 2017.  They were aware of the limits when they negotiated and signed the contract.  So, it would be very strange if they promised to more than they can deliver.  Especially since there were savings as a result of the contract, I’d want to see their books and projections before even considering voting to authorize more than what the Council has already agreed to allocate,” Rix said.

But Thornton said negotiations often require School Committees to ask for money not yet budgeted to fulfill agreements. This final piece to the deal was part of the discussion during negotiations, Thornton said.

“We absolutely had to go back to the Council. That was not new news,” he said.

“We were never told that the money wasn’t there,” said School Committee member Karen Bachus of the full committee’s knowledge of the contract when the board signed it in November. Bachus said Thornton and School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado did not mention that the agreement would require asking for an additional $1.5 million from the City Council. School Committee Fiscal Report Page 9

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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