Another night in Warwick
The City Council met with the Warwick School Department and School Committee, represented by School Committee Chair Chris Friel and Superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak, respectively. They explained to the City Council that for the past two years they had been flat-funded from the City at $123 million and were requesting approximately $126 million this year. Councilmen Steve Merolla, Joseph Solomon and Steve Colantuono all worked to narrow in on the problem. Mayor Avedisian helped clarify his proposal, explaining that he had proposed $117 million initially, but that was modified down to $115 million in light of further cuts from the State House last week. It was concluded that, assuming that the schools accepted flat funding again, the difference was approximately $8 million that had to be made up on the city side. It was basically agreed that the way forward lay in re-opening contracts with the Teacher’s union and in finally negotiating a new contract with the WISE union (secretaries, custodians and other support personnel–the old contract expired in 2006).
Then the incoherent portion of the evening kicked off with Councilwoman Donna Travis bringing up non-budget related items (traditional end-of-school cookout at Oakland Beach shut-down by school food vendor and a cheerleader getting an “absent” for attending a mandatory competition) and Councilwoman Helen Taylor focusing on various budget line items that were either minor (a couple thousand dollars) or were for programs that she knew nothing about, like the West Bay Collaborative, a regional program for troubled students that Warwick hosts, thus defraying some of the cost for Warwick’s own students. Taylor also personally called the integrity of the Superintendent into question for which she was chastised by Council Chairman Bruce Place.
The performance by Travis and Taylor is nothing new: over the past week–and through the years–both have taken every opportunity to grandstand at the expense of the school committee and administration. Criticism is warranted, of course, but Travis and Taylor consistently focus on minutiae for the sake of scoring cheap points. Apparently they are unaware that their performances reflect more poorly on them than the school department.
During public comment, various members of the Warwick Tea Party explained that it was time for the elected officials to stop pointing fingers at each other and to work with each other and the city’s workers and teachers to make the needed adjustments, such as health care co-pays of 20-25% and pay freezes for this fiscal year. As WTP member Bob Cushman explained, mistakes had been made in the past, but the can can’t be kicked down the road anymore. Further, Cushman, the former School Committee Chair and member of the City Council, was well versed in the history recent Warwick budgets and he was able to highlight that most of the cuts in Warwick’s budget (around 90% or more) were being shouldered by the School Department while most of the budget increases since 2004 had gone to the city side of the budget. After a criticism from Solomon that he had a hard time believing the School Committee would be able to renegotiate with anyone if they couldn’t resolve a 4 year expired contract, Bob Cushman had explained that it takes two sides to bargain and that they had turned down an offer of 9% raises and an $11/week co-pay four years ago.
There were also members of the WISE union who were in attendance and pled their case for being willing to negotiate their contract, which expired 4 years ago. They explained that every year they worried because they heard rumors about the privatization of their jobs. One worker explained that a 20% health care co-pay on a salary in the mid-$30 thousand’s would be tough to take.
Other members of the public reiterated the call for everyone in City government to make sacrifices and one speaker chastised the members of Warwick’s legislative delegation for never coming to these meetings and not fighting hard enough for more state aid. Finally, Councilman Merolla explained that while cuts in spending were certainly on the table now, going forward the city needed to work to get more businesses up and running. Good point, hard to do. And not something that will solve the immediate problem facing the city.
The City Council will meet again on Monday and it is expected that the budget will be passed at that time. Then it will be up to the various departments, including the schools, to make the cuts needed to abide by the budget. Stay tuned.