WARWICK – The financial crisis in Rhode Island’s third-largest city reached a fever pitch Wednesday, a day after the school committee voted to eliminate all school sports programs in order to close a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
The decision to slash Warwick’s entire athletic department brought the latest in a string of bad headlines for the city, which earlier this year was universally criticized for warning students that they would have to eat jelly sandwiches if they failed to pay their lunch tabs.
Now Mayor Joseph Solomon, the city’s Democratic mayor, is scrambling to restore funding for sports and after-school programs, but he acknowledges he has very little control over how the district spends money.
“I’d like to think they aren’t using the emotions of our young people as a bargaining chip,” Solomon told the Globe Wednesday.
The city’s school budget woes are fairly straightforward. The rising cost of employee salaries and healthcare as well as ever-increasing expenses for retiree benefits coupled with level funding from the city of Warwick left the district with an $8 million hole that state law requires the school committee to close before passing a budget.
The shortfall represents only four percent of the city’s entire school budget, but the vast majority of district spending is tied up in fixed costs, like contractual obligations. With the backing of Superintendent Philip Thornton, the school committee held a special meeting Tuesday to cut 45 line items, including athletics.
Thornton said he understands that sports are a “hot button issue,” but he noted the cuts run far deeper than football or soccer. Funding for text books, library books, a mentoring program, professional development for teachers and curriculum upgrades were also axed Tuesday.
“It really is a 10-year starvation of the district,” Thornton said. Like many Rhode Island communities, Warwick has relied heavily on boosts in state aid while rarely increasing local funding for the school system.
Word that Warwick was eliminating sports moved fast. On one of their first days of summer vacation, dozens of students rallied in City Hall Wednesday morning, calling on Solomon to find a way to bring back the funding.
Solomon has maintained he will avoid ending school sports in the city, possibly by using the city budget to cover expenses. But Thornton argues that would be illegal because the mayor’s office is not supposed to tell the school department how to spend money.
Because the Warwick School Committee doesn’t have taxing authority, it has no way to immediately raise more revenue. The district is funded through both the city and the state, but the committee is in charge of deciding how the money gets spent.
Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said he believes Warwick’s school leaders are laying the groundwork for a lawsuit against the city. The district’s big budget troubles, he said, are the result of failing to take action.
“The school committee and superintendent are wrestling with financial problems that are rooted in prior bad collective bargaining agreements and the community’s reluctance to consolidate schools despite a declining student population,” Duffy said.
Indeed, Warwick’s school enrollment has been falling for decades, from a high of 19,000 students in the 1970s to around 9,000 now. The district has been forced to close several schools in recent years, but plans have repeatedly been met with resistance from families.
It is not uncommon for communities to threaten to slash school sports to plug budget holes, though such cuts rarely move forward. Students and parents usually rally at school board meetings, and alternative solutions are found.
School observers could remember just one example in which athletics were cut altogether. The town of Coventry eliminated sports for one year in 1975, but the programs were later restored. The town nearly took the same action 30 years later, but officials eventually backed off the plan.
“That was a terrible, terrible thing and it took a couple of years to recover from that,” said Tom Mezzanotte, the executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
Mezzanotte said the state plans to move forward with fall sports schedules that include the schools in Warwick. He said he’s hopeful the adults in the city will work together to restore the program.
Failing to do so would have far-reaching consequences.
“It would be catastrophic,” he said.