School Board Sues City in Budget Crisis

WARWICK, R.I. (CN) – The Warwick school board sued the City Council for cutting a promised $875,000 in funding for city schools: 5 percent of the schools’ annual budget. It’s the latest, and one of the boldest, actions as Rhode Island schools stagger through a series of funding cuts.
The Warwick School Committee says the mayor and City Council wanted the $875,000 to be restricted to funding of extracurricular activities; the school board says the city has no legal grounds for such a restriction.
The complaint in Kent County Court is the latest in a string of complaints about budget cuts and restructuring of Rhode Island schools. Several towns and cities, including Providence, have addressed their budget crises by firing teachers and staff and reducing contributions to public education.
The Warwick school board says that in May it submitted a fiscal year 2012 budget request to the city of $124.6 million.
Local school funding in Rhode Island is called Maintenance of Effort, or MOE, and one year’s MOE is customarily compared with previous years to track growth – or shrinkage – of budgets.
In May, the school board says, the Warwick City Council agreed with Mayor Scott Avedisian’s recommendation to fund the schools in fiscal year 2012 at 95 percent of the MOE of 2009, which was $123 million.
That contribution would come to $117 million, the school board says.
The City Council also accepted the mayor’s proposal to withhold $875,000 from that $117 million budget and hold it into a city account, and released it to the school board, at the City Council’s discretion, only to fund extracurricular activities.
The mayor’s recommendation was based on a 2010 amendment to Rhode Island law that allows communities to contribute 95 percent of the FY 2009 budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
The law did not specify that the funding reduction was permanent and it did not permit a similar reduction for 2012, the school board says.
“That measure was temporary relief to cities and towns as the result of other budgetary actions taken by the state in extraordinarily poor times. Ordinarily, to ensure stability of the public schools, the entire statutory scheme for public school financing assumes that a school committee will have no less than the previous year’s funding from the community,” according to the complaint.
The complaint adds: “The defendants may suggest that because it legitimately took a 5 percent reduction in the MOE for FY 2011, the reduction to 95 percent of the FY 2009 MOE serves as the new base for FY 2012. The flaw in that argument is that it overlooks the plain language in the statute, which clearly recites that the reduction to 95 percent of the MOE shall only take place in FYs 2010 and 2011.”
The school board says Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary Education Deborah A. Gist issued an interpretative ruling on the question of whether a community that took the 5 percent reduction thereby established a permanent new base for future years. Gist determined that it did not, and that the minimum for FY 2012 would be set at 100 percent of the budget for the fiscal year of 2009, the school board says.
The school board says the City Council’s withholding of the $875,000 violates state law and the City Charter.
“The defendants lack any semblance of legal authority to dictate to the School Committee how school funds get spent and for when purpose they get spent. The only authority the defendants have is to approve the community share of school aid for the WPS [Warwick Public Schools,” the complaint states.
The school board adds: “To the extent that the City intends that the $875,000 be included in the identified 95 percent amount, then by keeping the $875,000 in the City’s accounts, the defendants have violated even their own erroneous interpretation of R.I. Gen Laws 16-7-23 and have provided a FY 2012 MOE of less than 95 percent.”
The School Committee seeks declaratory judgment and an order that the FY 2012 Maintenance of Effort should at least equal the FY 2009 MOE amount of $123,968,068, and wants the city ordered to release the $875,000 without any restrictions on its use.
The School Committee is represented by Rosemary Healey.

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