Warwick School Budget Fight

The debate over the fiscal and philosophical aspects of education policy often intertwine, but the current goings-on in Warwick have much more to do with money than education philosophy. The Warwick School Committee and Mayor Scott Avedesian are on opposite sides with regards to the education portion of the FY 2006 Warwick City budget. In short, the School Committee wants more money than the Mayor says is available. In a sort of “stealthy strike”, the school committee has raised the spectre of closing an elementary school to up the ante and get parents involved in the debate.

The School Committee told the City Council last night that it might have to shutter the Potowomut School, a threat that sent parents dashing to the microphone to defend the 76-year-old facility.
School board Chairman John F. Thompson, speaking at the council’s first budget hearing, said the closing Potowomut would save $500,000 — funds he called indispensable if the council approves Mayor Scott Avedisian’s recommended spending plan for the year that begins July 1.
“It’ll have a lot of negative impacts on education,” Thompson said of the mayor’s proposed budget. “Class sizes would increase dramatically; a school could be closed.”
Avedisian has proposed giving the School Department $142 million, $7.3 million less than the school board requested. . .
Avedisian contended that the school board hatched the Potowomut closure plan to galvanize parents of the elementary school’s 200 students. The issue came up at a School Committee meeting Tuesday night, but school officials never emphasized it in earlier budget presentations.
“I think it’s ironic that 10 days ago it wasn’t on the radar,” Avedisian said. The only similar proposal school officials have recently discussed, he asserted, concerned closing the John Wickes Elementary School if T.F. Green Airport ever expanded.
The School Department, in public comments and letters, had beseeched parents to attend last night’s hearing devoted to the education budget. And the proposal to close Potowomut filled the bleachers and balcony in the council chambers, with more than 100 people.

So, apparently, the tactic worked and many parents attended the meeting to save their school. This would seem to have been a disengenuous and cynical ploy by the embattled school committee. It almost seems as if, feeling the heat of teacher contract negotiations, they want to transfer some of the load over to the city politicians. For his part, Avedesian has made a counter-proposal (pdf source1, pgs. 4-6) to the School Committee that includes outlining places to cut and other methods for them to obtain cost savings. Setting those micro-issues aside, it is worth noting a few of the important larger numbers in his budget regarding education.
While the $142 million proposed by Avedesian is indeed “$7.3 million less than the school board requested” it is also approximately a 2.33% increase over last year (see pdf source1, pg. 12) and overall the schools will comprise 54.9% of the city budget (pg. 18 of same report). This is actually a decrease by percentage (down from 56.5% – pdf source2, pg. 17) of the share that education has in the overall budget, but is still an increase in funding. (Also, as an aside, last year 66% [pdf source2, pg. 12] of all city revenue was generated by property taxes while this year it will be 65.5% (pdf source1, pg. 13). As previously stated, Avedesian explained why he couldn’t support the increase proposed by the school committee and suggested ways that they could cut their budget, but instead they took the fight to the city council.
Part of the problem is that the School Committee is putting estimated figures reflective of a 3.5% pay increase and retroactive pay and benefits for the teachers with whom the committee is engaged in a well-documented battle. Realizing this, many parents also turned their vitriol on the teachers.

The proposal to close Potowomut — and likely disperse its students to the Cedar Hill and Harold J. Scott Elementary Schools — also sparked criticism of the Warwick Teachers Union, which has been locked in a contract dispute with the school board for nearly two years.
Several parents called for giving the teachers lower raises and requiring them to contribute to the cost of their health coverage. The $2 million in this year’s budget earmarked for teacher raises, speakers said, should be spent on equipment and books instead, as should $2.4 million that the school board allocated for prospective raises in its budget request for next year.
“Teacher salaries are out of line. Something needs to be done,” said Bruce Gempp, to sustained applause. “Buy some buses, buy some books.”

Well, that sounds nice, but that’s $4.4 million that the Mayor says can’t be found in the first place! In short, the entire teacher contract simply needs to be renegotiated so that more money goes to resources used by the students, not to the teachers. The 3.5% raises are frankly unnecessary when the job steps are taken into account, anyway. In fact, I would even be willing to propose a guaranteed COLA + 1% raise in exchange for getting rid of the hidden salary increases present in the step structure. However, to stay out of the weeds, the fundamental issue at the heart of this battle is that the school committee and the teacher’s union need to hammer out a common-sense contract. Fighting over the city budget is a red herring.
One possibly beneficial outcome could be that the mayor becomes more involved in the negotiation process. As chief excecutive of the city, I would say that it definitely falls under his purview. At this point, two years and running, it is obvious that someone needs to take a leadership role and serve as a diplomat between the school committee and teacher’s union. Who better than the mayor? Isn’t this exactly the situation in which he can best serve the city and its future?

Show your support for Anchor Rising with a 25-cent-per-day subscription.