Monday will mark a significant next chapter in the ongoing budgetary crisis being experienced by the Warwick School Department, as they will present to the City Council findings of their programmatic audit finalized in August that concluded the schools needed an additional $4 million from the city to fulfill their obligations to provide an education in line with the state’s Basic Education Plan (BEP).
Robert Hicks, a former superintendent of three different districts in Rhode Island, will present the report to the council as he did to the Warwick School Committee last month. However, Hicks is aware that those in attendance listening may be a little less receptive to his findings this time around.
“As part of preparing the audit report I did listen to some audio of some of the meetings with the city council and the school committee,” he said. “I do have a sense that this will be a different audience than the school committee was.”
Helping further frame the possible tumultuousness of the upcoming meeting is the likelihood that both members and advocates of Mentor Rhode Island and WISE Union members will show up en masse to make their presence known during public comments and through signs. Both groups have been directly affected by cuts enacted by the school committee to address what was at one time an $8.1 million deficit.
Previous meetings throughout the budget process between the council and school administrators have included tense exchanges, with some council members expressing open distrust of the school department’s operations and fiscal responsibility. Criticism over expenditures, such as the renovation of the former Gorton Middle School into an administration building that feature large classrooms converted into air-conditioned offices for administrators, have occurred frequently.
However, Hicks maintained on Wednesday that he will simply provide the context necessary to understand his report.
“The report is the report, and I'll be presenting the same report from the same document,” he said. “I don’t anticipate the content of the presentation being any different.”
Some, like Democratic mayoral candidate Richard Corrente, have criticized the audit report as not being truly objective, because the school committee chose their own auditor to conduct analyses of their fiscal and programmatic practices. Hicks said that he was given no instructions following being hired.
“I try to base my conclusions in data and let people see how the info I found is grounded in the data that I looked at,” he said. “I was hired by the school but they never asked me to find any specific finding. I was just looking at how they can best attempt to meet the funding level and what was possible and what was not possible, both in the immediate situation and the out years.”
The audit revealed that a large portion of the approximately $6.6 million in cuts approved by the school committee to help balance that aforementioned deficit in July – cuts that included 15 custodians and cuts directly affecting programs and services to students – would be in direct violation of the state BEP, and would need to be restored immediately.
The audit searched for inefficiencies and found very little room to cut in terms of personnel, save for about $1.2 million that could be saved from eliminating ever kindergarten TA position. It revealed that about 16.5 additional teachers could be cut at the secondary level while still remaining efficient.
The audit also concluded that Warwick was not overstaffed at the administration level, but that Superintendent Philip Thornton’s salary was about $35,000 over the average for other like districts. It also revealed that the biggest cost driver for schools in Warwick was teacher salaries, which have a $5.1 million higher impact on the budget as a whole over the next closest like community.
Finally, the audit concluded that Warwick was the only district among similar communities to spend less money on a per pupil basis over the last two years, a fact that Hicks said during his audit report in August was evidence that Warwick’s school consolidation over the past few years has indeed been saving the district money, just not perhaps as much as some school critics would like to see.
Hicks stood by his report, and said he would be ready to deliver it to the council on Monday.
“I think nothing is ever perfect but I do think it is complete and accurate and I think I shared the standards that I used,” he said. “Other people can do these reports and take different approaches, but I try to follow the money, find out where the money is going and try to explain why the money is going there and try to explain if less money can go there.”
School officials were hopeful that the audit report would bring new fuel to a case that has yet to be proven to the council – that the schools simply need more money to operate.
“As always I'm hopeful the council will reassess the funding provided to the schools this year and look at potentially increasing the funding based on the BEP audit,” Thornton said on Wednesday.
City Council President Steve Merolla has said in the past that the council worked hard to find $1.5 million for the schools above the level-funded line they received from the budget passed off by former Mayor Scott Avedisian in May, and that the schools have begun these negotiations asking for an unreasonable amount of money that could not be legally be raised through even a max tax increase. He did not respond to a text message sent Wednesday morning asking for comment on this story.
Ward 5 Councilman and finance committee chair Ed Ladouceur said that he was awaiting “additional information” on the report, though he didn’t expand on what that information entailed.
“At this point I haven’t gone over their report and scrutinized it, but I will,” he said. “Once I've been able to analyze their report and put together some of my own conclusions, I'll be in a better position.”