RI School Committee Association: Warwick budget woes could hit other districts

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Students and parents in Warwick staged protests this summer when school officials threatened to cut sports. Their demonstrations saved athletics, but administrators still had to slash $4 million in other areas. On the chopping block: new Chromebooks for students and classes for teachers to learn a new math instruction technique.

The cuts might not be felt on the first day of school, but the district’s financial director, Anthony Ferrucci, said the current budget constraints will have long-term impacts.

“We’re not going to feel it the first few months of school,” Ferrucci told Eyewitness News over the phone on Thursday. “It’s going to just set us back as a district for the future and that’s what our biggest concern is.”

The school district’s technology budget was slashed by roughly $800,000, meaning devices that are now three to five years old are not being replaced as previously planned. Ferrucci worries wear and tear costs will spike, but that’s a bridge they’ll have to cross later.

The same is true for professional development, where the entire budget was cut. Usually, that money would allow teachers to learn new instruction techniques and teaching styles. This year the focus was going to be on math.

“We’ve got math instruction going on, but it’s not the latest and greatest that we were pursuing,” Ferrucci said.

The school district is also withholding a roughly $1 million pension fund contribution for non-teacher employees.

Eventually, Ferrucci said, these expenses will need to be addressed. He said parents and students need to be advocates for better funding now so that the problems aren’t exacerbated over time.

“I think we can be in a great space a year from now if that message gets out,” he said, and if it doesn’t, “Two years from now I think a lot of people will say, ‘We don’t want to be here because the community can’t pre-plan and put us in a good position for future consideration.'”

Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said Warwick’s problems could be indicative of a larger trend.

“Warwick… they may be the canary in the coal mine in that other districts are going to face similar difficulties and similar choices,” he said. “Warwick may be the precursor to what we see this upcoming year, which I believe is going to be a very, very difficult financial year. “

Duffy believes part of the impending financial turbulence will be the result of Twin River’s revenue shortfalls, which the casino has blamed on new competition from Massachusetts casinos like Encore.

In October, the state will hold it’s annual revenue-estimating conference where leaders will determine how much money schools will receive in the next state budget. The state’s third-largest source of revenue is the lottery and casino gaming, so Duffy said he’s been cautioning school districts of what could come.

Duffy also believes the state should convene a legislative study commission to examine the current school funding formula, saying Rhode Island lags behind other states.

“Even though it’s $1.1 billion, it may not be sufficient given the fact that we are in the northeast,” he said.

Last legislative session the Rhode Island Senate passed a resolution creating a task force to study the state’s education funding formula. A spokesman said the members will be appointed in the coming weeks.

In Warwick, Ferrucci said he’s hoping to build a five-year plan to avoid “kicking the can down the road” any further.

As of now, he said they’ll take any funding that becomes available and use it to patch budget gaps.

Next month they plan to allocate $280,000 in newly-available state aid towards things like renting CCRI for graduation and funding late buses, which are already running.

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