WARWICK, RI — Warwick Budget Hearings reviewed the first half of the city’s $331M FY22 budget Monday, including the $193.5M Warwick Schools budget, featuring program changes to attract students and staunch student flight from the district.
The Warwick Budget Hearings continued Tuesday night until 11 p.m., reviewing the full agenda for that meeting before concluding with a unanimous vote to reconvene at 4 p.m. Thursday, where the Council is expected to vote on the spending plan and possibly changes to it.
Mayor Frank J. Picozzi told the council at the beginning of Monday’s meeting that preparation for the budget proposal began several months ago and the goal was to present a budget that did not call for a property tax increase.
“The goal has been achieved,” Picozzi said. “Homeowners and business owners are struggling because of this pandemic and I know that you join me not to put any further burden on them.”
The city’s proposed budget includes three initiatives:
- Recalling employees laid off last year which Picozzi said was a loss that greatly diminished the city’s ability to provide the quality of services they expect and deserve.
- Allocating $6.4 million for leases/purchases to replace the city’s aging and a decrepit fleet of fire apparatus, police vehicles, garbage trucks and other vehicles.
- Paying $240,000 in lease costs to centralize the city’s municipal services in the Apponaug in the Sawtooth Building in association with AAA, so city offices will no longer be scattered throughout the city. Earlier Monday, Mayor Picozzi signed the Sawtooth Building lease, which was previously voted on by the City Council.
Since taking office, Picozzi said he’s been meeting bi-weekly with the superintendent, adding the school department didn’t’ need any additional appropriations this year because of the sharp decline in students and teacher layoffs. He also said there would be no cutting of programs with no additional appropriations.
The school department also requested an additional $500,000 aimed at creating programs to stop the loss of students to other districts seeking programs they aren’t able to get in Warwick. School Committee members had voted 3-2 during a recent meeting to approve requesting this funding, raising questions among city council members and residents in attendance Monday night.
Warwick Finance Director Peder Schaefer told council members while crafting the budget, significant time was spent figuring out how to use American Rescue Funds passed in March. Under this funding, the city will receive, during an interval beginning last week and lasting a year, approximately $39 million.
Warwick’s new Superintendent Lynn Dambruch introduced the School Department’s budget request Monday afternoon, saying she’s proud to say the proposed budget is aligned with the district’s strategic plan and is student-centered with funds to support student activities, student programs and transportation for eligible students in grades K through 12.
Robert Baxter, executive director of finance and operations, said FY 2022 will be a rebuilding year for the school department, with a budget crafted to address enrollment, revenue and cost-saving challenges. He added that this year the department plans to close several structural gaps as they start with a clean slate.
“This budget seeks to put the district in a new position,” he said. “A position in which we are generating revenue from alternate sources and optimizing expenses and the dollars we do spend and position the district in a way to maintain and hopefully increase our enrollment.”
Eighty-one percent of the school budget is fixed in salaries and fringe benefits, to a cost of approximately $141 million. That figure is driven by staffing and contractual obligations.
Of the remaining budget, $22.6 million of roughly $33 million is fixed and consists of out-of-district tuition and transportation, which are also contractual obligations. Those out-of-district tuitions amount to $12.4 million and transportation is $10.9 million. That leaves 6 percent of the budget for everything else.
Councilman Edgar Ladouceur raised concern that 7 percent of the budget is to send students to other districts, a number he called “concerning,” especially when looking at the loss of 400 students over the past year.
“We only have 6 percent left to do what we need to do after we pay all these other items including 7 percent of the budget for out-of-district placement … at $22,000 per student. We’ve dropped another 400 students this year. That’s $8.8 million in costs that I don’t see exist. That’s concerning. So from Fiscal Year 2019 to Fiscal Year 2022 we’ve had an increase in school budget of almost $8.5 million in three years. And we have the swing the other way of 400 kids not here at $22,000 per student. The big question is why? What’s going on? It seems to me that all these conversations that have been going on at these budget hearings year after year after year after year don’t change. The costs keep running up. The student population keeps running down and we have more students it seems every year pulling away from the Warwick Public Schools and going to other districts or other schools.”
Baxter said of the $12 million the department funds for out-of-district tuitions, $6 million is for special services for tuitions to facilities that deal with and provide services to students that Warwick is not able to provide. “Half of that $12 million is for special services, the other half deals with the enrollment problem you were talking about,” he said.
Baxter went on to tell Ladouceur he was correct in that in the past several budgets, the school department’s expense have not followed the decline in enrollment.”But I would suggest this budget attempts to reconcile that because through the staff reductions that were adopted at the last School Committee meeting to reduce our staffing as a result of enrollment decline to correct that error. With the new look we are giving the current situation we are making the steps we haven’t made in the past.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton said historically in the state a student can go to another district for a program even if the city or town the student lives in has the same program. But if new legislation to correct that passes in the state house Wednesday, that will no longer be the case. If passed, that law wouldn’t take effect until 2022.
Baxter said the plan over the summer, as part of the department’s strategic planning process, would be to go out and interview what he called stakeholders in the community, parents of students who have gone to other districts, students and faculty to identify the factors driving the decline in enrollment. “We are hoping by the time we sit down to write that plan in September or October, we will have honed in on the primary causes for the enrollment decline.”
“I hope with this new look, new set of eyes with this, that I consider to be a serious problem in how we educate our children, how we can afford to educate our children or how we can’t afford to educate our children,” Ladouceur said. “I’m really hoping this new set of eyes is going to be able to get a grip on it.”
Baxter said the goal is to make the zipcodes of Warwick the most desirable in the state and that they are looking at the American Rescue Plan funds to help with that, but they will not be used for recurring expenses. “We are not planning to use those funds for recurring expenses that would then lead to a structural deficit,” he said. “We are budgeting to use those funds for one time only, nonrecurring expenses to help us close the gaps in technology, curriculum, etc.”
Assist Superintendent William McCaffrey said that $500,000 is essential in supporting the emerging pathways at Warwick’s high schools, strengthening its middle-level exploratory and project-based offerings and strengthening careers and tech education programs. He said they also need to do a better job promoting what they have within the district and beyond.
McCaffrey said the $500,000 would fund six emerging pathways at the city’s high schools at a cost of $120,000. There would be four programs at Pilgrim High School: robotics, performing arts, biomedical and computer science and two programs at Tollgate: biomedical and computer science. “The goal would have all six programs have CT program approval in the 2021-2022 school year,” he said. “Please note in the 2021 school year the Rhode Island Department of Education placed a moratorium on approving new programs.”
Additionally, 16 exploratory and eight project-based learning programs would be funded at the middle school level at both of the city’s middle schools at a cost of $240,000 with a goal to improve the district’s real-world applications within the schools. “Also when appropriate we would have our middle-level offerings aligned with our secondary pathways and CT programs,” McCaffrey said. “All students at the middle level participate in exploratories and project-based learning offerings.”
The district would also fund four career and tech programs at a cost of $100,000 including electronics, business and marketing academy, marine trades and welding.
“The remaining $40,000 would be used to promote secondary offerings in our schools, in our community and outside of our community,” he said.
McCaffrey said the $500,000 investment would help reduce tuitions that would be paid to other communities by strengthening Warwick’s existing programs. “Based on my informal research, biomedical, computer science and academy of business and marketing are highly desirable to students in Warwick and it would be to our benefit to support these programs,” he said.
Councilman Vinny Gebhart called the programs exciting and innovative, saying they would keep students in Warwick or bring other students into the city.
“If we are able to get 25 students back into the district, we’ve made up that $500,000 gap there and given this past year where everyone was displaced I would urge you to just simplify … make sure that we’re promoting those programs that we are soliciting students who are either outside the district currently to come back to those programs,” he said. “Let’s double down on what we already have and let’s get more kids back into the system and that will fund the next investment into the next round of programs.”
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