Warwick, RI – School officials asked the City Council to add $6,952,275 to Mayor Scott Avedisian’s level-funded $159,530,000 school budget proposal Thursday night, pleading for investment in spite of the Committee’s ongoing disagreement with Avedisian on the timing of school consolidation.
Avedisian noted in his budget summary that a recent study by Symmes Maini & McKee Associates has merely confirmed the need to consolidate schools established in a previous study.
“A year ago, then-Chairwoman Bethany Furtado led an effort to save millions of dollars by closing two schools and repurposing a third for reuse to house students from the two schools slated to close. She was rebuffed,” Avedisian wrote.
In fact, Avedisian said, the report indicates eight to 10 buildings may need to be closed.
“It is very difficult and I stand by whatever decision is made. But a decision must be made. Simply not making a decision is costing millions of dollars a year that could go into technology and programs,” Avedisian said.
Avedisian repeated his pledge from last year’s budget process that schools can keep school consolidation savings.
But School Committee Member Eugene Nadeau said the Committee needs time to review the report and finish selecting a consolidation plan. On Wednesday, the Committee narrowed its options down to two plans:
One plan would close Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, combining the city’s two junior high schools into that building, gathering the city’s sixth, seventh, and eighth graders under one roof.
The second plan would keep the high schools, but incorporate each high school’s respective junior high school into that space, Nadeau said.
“Consolidation has to take place, but it’s got to be done with the long-term plan,” Naedau said. His words echoed a similar idea the School Committee member expressed during his successful bid for reelection.
Given that progress has been made on consolidation since the budget and Avedisian’s comments were released, Nadeau said he hoped the mayor would change his mind.
Such was the situation at the beginning of the Warwick School Committee’s turn under the scrutiny of the City Council’s Budget Hearing Thursday night, which lasted about four and a half hours.
Warwick Schools Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci started off his presentation by sending a Chromebook to each councillor, along with about seven volunteers who walked them through using Google Docs to demonstrate what School Department officials intend to make available to each student – Chromebooks using Google Docs for storing homework, assignments and class materials.
The technological boost will help ensure Warwick Schools students stay competitive in an increasingly technological age, Ferrucci said.
Under the plan, every Warwick Public School student will receive a Chromebook they’ll carry for three years, switching out at the following intervals: Third to Fourth Grade, Fourth to Seventh Grade and Seventh to 10th Grade.
To do that, though, the School Department is asking for $3,138,235, for the hardware, software, and training for teachers, Ferrucci said.
“I need these funds to make it happen,” Ferrucci said. Then later in the presentation, “We need help here, folks, please.”
Councilman Steve Merolla noted the School Department has been level funded for the last eight years, gaining about $14,000 in its budget over that time, while the municipal side of the budget has grown much faster.
“It makes me want to stand up and scream. Scream at the inequities,” Merolla said, “This is our future. These are our kids.”
Merolla noted the lack of financial support is also common at the state level. He referred to a hand-written chart Nadeau passed to Council members, reading that Warwick received $36 million in school aid, not much more than Central Falls’ $30 million.
Councilwoman Kathleen Usler said she was unconvinced giving the School Department the Chromebook funding would be money wisely spent. She said the schools suffer from leadership that can’t seem to solve pressing problems, and that she felt pressure to leave the community in search of a better education for her children.
Council President Donna Travis noted the School Department is not bound by the Council’s wishes if they get the funding. Who’s to say, she said, that they’ll use the money for what they’re asking.
“Remember that,” Travis said.
The final comments from the council members inspired a heated defense of the School Department from many who took advantage of the public comment segment shortly after.
David Testa took issue with Travis’ comments. “It’s by design that schools are governed separately,” Testa said, “Because you don’t know how it should be spent.”
School Departments do, though, he said, and often circumstances change, requiring school spending to change accordingly, he said.
Warwick has an opportunity to do something with its schools, Testa said, but that requires the city to step up, “And I don’t see it,” he said.
Darlene Netcoh was also among those speaking in defense of the School Department. She also noted the apparent lack of investment in schools while other services have been maintained.
“We’ve got everything that we need,” Netcoh said, “Now we need to concentrate on our schools.”
A copy of this year’s proposed school budget is embedded below (or click the link to look at it in a new window):