History and Third Rails in Warwick Schools

The School Committee cut sports. And a lot of other stuff. As Patrick Maloney Jr. has pointed out, this is all a step on the way to filing a Caruolo act lawsuit against the City. Tonight was the culmination of a decade plus of too many people not paying attention to what has been happening to school funding in Warwick. Or, if they did, they were distracted by the political shell game played by the former and current Mayors, City Council and even some members of the current school Committee as they constantly beat up each School Administration (at least 3 Superintendents and staff) over the last 10 years. Because that is what this is really a result of: politics being played at the expense of educating our kids.

I’m tired of it. I’ve been observing and trying to help for over a decade. I was a member and past Chair of the Parent Communications Advisory Committee set up by the Warwick School Department after the first round of school consolidation last decade. My wife was a member of VOWS and the Hoxsie, Aldrich and Pilgrim PTO’s for many years. She spent more time in the schools helping than she spent at home. She was a VOWS Volunteer of the year (those of you who know her know she won’t be happy about me talking about her!). We both volunteered for the Pilgrim APE for a few years.

My time on the PCAC taught me a lot about Warwick schools and all of the “players”. I saw the acrimony and distrust. When my kids graduated from Pilgrim, I stepped down from the PCAC and we eased out of the schools. It was time for others to take over. Because that is really what makes successful schools: parental interest and time. Parents need to care. Don’t leave it up to the educators and administrators and politicians. It’s on us. We are the ones who can’t fail the kids. My kids did well in school and are doing great in college. They had good teachers. But they had better parents. We never worked-to-rule.

For those of you new to the game, some history. No punches pulled.

The School Committees and Administrations have not been perfect. Not at all. But they have cut staff, closed buildings (which the city owns and can sell), been level funded and attempted to meet shifting national and state mandates. All while being harangued for closing schools (how else to reduce expenditures as student population dwindles?), enduring level funding, getting accused of hiding money or spending it on exorbitant new offices in Gorton (I’ve seen them, they’re not), not caring about children or worse. To be sure, the schools have given themselves a few black eyes and earned criticism (fire alarms, teacher misconduct), but not all of it was fair and much of it was generated by the aforementioned politicians playing the blame game to distract the taxpayers.

I’ve watched this over and over for the last 20 years. Those of us who have followed these things have lost count of how many times a Council member intentionally – often ineptly – focused on a single, mundane small dollar line item in the school budget for the purpose of getting in a “gotcha” moment (Donna Travis and Camille Vella-Wilkinson are two that come to my mind). They would use these examples to justify level funding the schools then turn around and raise the municipal side of the budget over which they had total control.

Unfortunately, it has also been a regular occurrence for the teachers union and, prior to the last election, three current members of the school committee (Bachus, Cobden and Cornell) to join the City Council in persistently attacking the “Administration” (comprised of many former Warwick teachers, incidentally) because it was politically advantageous in the short term. With the help of Ed Ladouceur, those three set up their own shadow School (sub) committee of the City Council to question the School Administration and School Committee. Remember: Karen Bachus was on the School Committee herself at the time. Talk about a conflict of interest! But I guess it worked: they got elected, didn’t they? And Bachus is now the School Committee Chair.

And now these same people are reaping the reward of the distrust they helped to sow. Warwick taxpayers have been conditioned to blame the administration and school committee for all of the problems with the schools. A decade or more of hearing and believing this is a hard habit to break! But the new school committee Chair and the new members sure hope people re-calibrate the focus of their anger over “Cutting Sports” from them to the Mayor and City Council. We’ll see if it works. I feel bad for the kids and parents who are getting (understandably) upset about this, but it’s all part of a process. Just ugly.

Meanwhile, as Robert Cushman has repeatedly shown, the city side of the ledger has gone up and up while very few cared or noticed (remember, the school administration is the problem, even the teachers union & current School Committee themselves said so, right?) The city side of things was running great! Well, it looks like people are finally noticing that there may be a problem. FBI investigations will do that. Better late than never. But is it too late?

The problem is that more and more tax dollars are going to pay the benefits for people that used to work for the city. So which promise is kept? Education for the future or debts of the past for retiree pension and benefits? The tough answer is there aren’t many places left to cut. But there is one big one, the third rail of city politics: cut pay (raises) and benefits for current employees. It’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to talk about.

Like it or not, employee compensation is the largest portion of the budget and, it stands to reason, the one area where the largest cut can be made. Shave a little bit off of the largest item – give everyone a haircut, so to speak. For example, given the current circumstances can Warwick afford to give out contracted raises? If my employer has a bad year, I’m not going to see a raise. But I’m not in a union. To take back city employee raises requires opening up contracts. I’m not sure there is a political will to do that. Or that city or school employees are willing to make the sacrifice.

So we’ll just muddle along and maybe avert the crisis this year with a band-aid or two. But the larger problem is not going away. We’re past the band aid stage; its time for surgery. Whether we want it or not.

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