WARWICK, RI — It’s admittedly an understatement to say that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way our society functions — but it’s also equally true that the pandemic has created the potential for positive outcomes.
Such is the situation that the Warwick School Committee finds itself in as its members discuss the proposed $193 million FY22 school budget.
During the board’s most recent budget meeting, Operations and Finance Director David Baxter showed that the district can balance its budget in the upcoming fiscal year, primarily through 34 teacher layoffs.
Baxter’s plan appeared to have the committee’s support, with member David Testa contrasting it with the controversial attempt to eliminate school sports in 2019 and saying that the school board should not look to the city for more funding this year.
(The Warwick City Council eventually provided $3.9 million that saved sports programs while rejecting some of former Mayor Joseph Solomon’s conditions for that additional money.)
Baxter also told the school committee that COVID-19 has provided “a clean slate” for an all-new transportation team to plan bus routes for the 2021-22 school year, potentially reducing the distance that children would have to walk to school.
Combined with the concessions included in the latest teacher contract, the Warwick School Committee has a nearly unprecedented opportunity for improvement heading into the FY22 budget year.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s different in Warwick this year — and why it should change how education is delivered in the city.
There’s just no money
Following a turbulent 2020 and the lingering effects of Solomon’s often misguided attempts at managing the city’s books, the school department simply can not expect the city to increase its contribution this year.
As Testa explained during the April 16 budget session, the city could legally reduce the amount it provides for education because of Warwick’s drop in student enrollment.
With Picozzi announcing in February that a possible $1.9 million surplus (far less than Solomon predicted) could be in jeopardy because of incorrect budgeting for the fire department, it’s highly unlikely that the city council will “find” additional school money, like they have in the past by taking money from the city’s paving budget.
Acknowledging the city’s fiscal plight — and understanding what it means to their budget planning — would mark a significant improvement from how the school board has interacted with the city in the past.
Teacher contract provides leeway for layoffs
Following the tumultuous summer of 2019 that resulted in the most recent teacher contract, the Warwick School Committee secured the ability to lay off more than 20 teachers, with wording added to the new pact that cited declining student enrollment as a reason to exceed the prior limit.
Leading up to the last contract were several rounds of legal wrangling, including the Warwick Teachers Union filing a successful appeal to the State Labor Relations Board in 2016 over the former limit of 20 layoffs, only for a judge to reverse the RILRB’s decision in February, 2017.
And while the contract expired last August, both the school administration and teachers union continue to operate under it, meaning the school board can issue 34 layoff notices — less than half the number that Baxter said could be imposed according to current enrollment trends.
With that kind of legal justification, the school board has a valid reason to pursue teacher layoffs as the main way to balance its FY22 budget while maintaining educational programs for students.
New mayor brings new approach
Even before he was elected, Picozzi signaled his commitment to transparency, responsiveness, and cooperation to the mayor’s office — and so far, he’s meeting those goals.
Picozzi’s prior experience on the school committee also gives him unique insight into the operations of the school department, a major departure from his predecessors who generally took more of a hands-off attitude toward the schools until conditions got so bad that they required mayoral intervention.
When asked about the school committee’s apparent goal of not requesting city funding above the current $171.5 allotment, Picozzi said in a statement: “I think it’s a responsible decision by the school department, as the city and its residents continue to feel the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The new mayor’s approach stands in marked contrast to Solomon’s heavy-handed actions toward the school department during his tenure, including trying to put onerous conditions on providing more education funding and his plainly wrong stance on using WISE pension contributions to balance the school budget.
School committee members have more of an ally at Warwick City Hall than they have in the past, and should embrace a spirit of cooperation for a better working relationship with city officials.
People are looking for ‘the new normal’
As if the 2020 election weren’t enough proof that Warwick voters wanted a change in their local government, the continuing progress toward a post-COVID “new normal” shows that people are willing to adapt to changing circumstances and improve how things are done.
For the Warwick School Committee, that means ending the past practice of approving pie-in-the-sky budgets and depending on lawsuits and PR battles to get more funding.
It also means taking a far less combative approach to the mayor and city council, who are operating under the same expectations from voters and have already cut municipal staff in response to COVID-19.
As the budget season progresses, the layoff plan will most likely put the school board in the crosshairs of the WTU, but the union’s ability to bring out sympathetic parents and students will likely be diminished by COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.
Parents might just be too exhausted from dealing with in-person schedules and distance learning to argue in favor of keeping more teachers than the district can afford, and the Warwick school board should stand firm on teacher layoffs.
Conclusion: The Warwick School Committee should seize the opportunity presented by COVID-19 and the FY22 budget to fundamentally change how the school department is run, and as a result, improve education in the city.
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