WARWICK, RI — Monday night’s Warwick City Council meeting showed that the proverbial tide is turning against the council’s and Mayor Joseph Solomon’s contradictory messages about funding the school department.
Prompted, no doubt, by public protests over School Committee plans to eliminate sports in the upcoming school year, the Council unanimously approved Councilman Anthony Sinapi’s resolution to add $4 million to the school budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.
As much of a victory as that may seem, it’s still short of the school committee’s original FY20 request of $7.7 million, and it does not guarantee that school sports will be saved, as Chairwoman Karen Bachus explained, noting the list of other programs that the school committee considers to be priorities.
Sinapi’s decision to propose the higher amount is curious, since he was the councilor who led the no-confidence vote against school Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci. Arguably, the impact of publicly expressing displeasure with the school department’s money management is somewhat lessened by giving it more money. (This isn’t the first time that councilors have expressed disapproval with the school department’s spending before approving more funding.)
The City Council’s vote also leaves a deficit of some $4 million from FY19 unresolved, as the school committee has announced it will follow a legal opinion that closing the gap by withdrawing money from a school pension fund is illegal, despite Solomon’s declaration that the issue has “been put to rest.”
And as a sign at the council meeting noted, the city still hasn’t released its audit for FY19, leaving further doubt about its overall financial condition.
Council overcomes hurdle, still faces others
Backing down from its original plan — offering $1.3 million on the condition that the school committee would only use it for sports — is a step in the right direction for the Council, and an acknowledgement that it has no legal right to dictate how the School Committee spends its budget.
Still, the final vote didn’t come without some resistance. Councilman Edgar Ladouceur argued that Sinapi’s resolution was too complicated (while apparently still ignoring the legal issues that the earlier proposal would create), and suggested that the council vote on the $1.3 million plan.
To their credit, the council ultimately decided that Sinapi’s resolution was not any more complex than the first proposal; while it still puts conditions on the funding, those conditions are related to the ongoing mediation between the city and school department — not a misguided belief in the city’s authority.
(That $4 million in funding is, coincidentally, nearly the same amount that former Mayor Scott Avedisian predicted the city might pay if the School Committee were to file a so-called Caruolo lawsuit that resulted in a “split the difference” decision.)
As it passed each amendment and approved the final plan, the City Council rightly received applause from the dozens of students and residents who packed city hall on Monday night — and while there are still issues to be addressed, the Council’s decisions give some reason for hope of a positive resolution.
Conclusion: The Warwick City Council took a major, if belated, step toward fixing the school budget mess — but there’s still a long way to go.