WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A group of students who met with Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon Wednesday morning said they have received assurances sports and other school activities would be restored for the upcoming school year.
Chanting “keep your promise” and “fund our future,” students stormed into Warwick City Hall Wednesday morning to protest massive budget cuts the school committee approved Tuesday night that eliminate, among other things, all school sports and after-school programs.
After listening to students protesting outside his office for about a half hour, Solomon agreed to meet with a teacher and three student representatives – including Gianna Cirella’s sister Cassie – who made an emotional plea the night before.
When they emerged about a half hour later, they said in unison, “We have our sports!”
“We were not happy when we first got here. But leaving here today, I can definitely speak for all of us, we definitely feel better about today,” said Pilgrim High School junior Lily Brown, who plays soccer and softball. ” “I said if I walk out those doors right now and I go and speak to all of my classmates, I’m going to tell them to their faces ‘we have our after-school programs and our sports and our clubs back?’ He said ‘yes you can.’ So he pretty much promised us that they’re back.”
Mayor Solomon then met with the media to explain the promise he made to the frustrated students, considering it’s the role of the Warwick School Committee and Superintendent Philip Thornton – not the mayor or City Council – to allocate school funding in the way they deem fit.
Mayor Solomon said he was alerted of that School Committee decision by an Eyewitness News reporter who had called him for comment, following the meeting.
He said the vote came as a surprise to him, as he had just been in closed-door mediation with the school committee, superintendent and city council for the first round of talks the previous Thursday and that he was looking forward to continuing mediation.
“The school committee can choose to cut what they wish to cut. However, both the legislative branch of government and the executive branch, the council and myself, have been committed to this from day one, and we continue to be committed to this,” Solomon said. “Whether it had been through giving the school department the funds to keep sports in place or through methods outside the box which I was reluctant to disclose prior to mediation, but since mediation last night was voted off the table and now it’s going to be litigation, I feel free to expand upon that, and that was to utilize city resources and city funds to address the budgetary items necessary to keep the sports in place for the middle school and high school programs,” said Mayor Solomon.
He added that he would still be willing to sit down in mediation with the school committee if they so choose to do so.
The mayor said in mediation when he suggested contributing city funding to sports in both service and monetary ways, the school department said it was concerned that offer might interact with union’s bargaining contracts. Solomon said he didn’t think that would be included in bargaining contracts, thus, not be an issue.
The mayor said while there isn’t necessarily a surplus in the budget in other parts of city funding, he would always find a way to fund programs that are most important to residents, namely sports and after-school activities.
“There’s never extra money. There are the necessary funds to keep important programs in place,” Solomon added.
When pointing to ways the city could help with the costs of sports, the mayor referenced how the cost to utilize the city’s ice rink was zero dollars. He said that’s an example of the Warwick Parks and Recreation Department overlapping with the schools.
He suggested perhaps other costs could be alleviated by utilizing what the city already has. However, he did also point to up to $700,000 dollars of hard money in the form of salaries.
“I think one of the council people suggested that we give $1.3 million dollars and the response from Phil Thornton and the elected school committee was, ‘Well, we may not apply it to sports. We might want to spend it somewhere else.’ I can give you $10 million. We have no say on how it’s spent. It lies within the confines of the elected school committee and Phil Thornton,” Solomon said. “That’s how the money’s spent. We have no say in that, but by thinking outside the box and utilizing something new for a change, we can be assured that these resources will be devoted to what these children out here, young people in our community, have been advocating for.”
Eyewitness News has reached out to Superintendent Philip Thornton, and members of the Warwick School Committee for comment, and received the following statement.
After a decade of nearly level funding of the school district operating budget by the City of Warwick, the Warwick School Committee cut 7.7 million dollars from the district budget to achieve a balanced budget and comply with State law. These were very difficult cuts-including textbooks, teacher assistants, sports and after school clubs. This coming after having closed schools and having reduced staff in previous budget years. Warwick Schools are at a crossroads. More funding is needed for education in the City of Warwick. We are hopeful the City will continue discussion and assist us further with this effort.”Dr. Philip Thornton, Warwick School Superintendent