A Rhode Island Superior Court judge is set to decide whether Warren must pay the regional school district $416,000, plus interest and legal fees, more than a year after town officials refused to pay the district what the town was ordered for the 2012-13 school year.
Warren’s refusal last year to pay the $12.165 million ordered by the district’s financing authority marked a low point in school relations between Bristol and Warren, which have been bound together as a regional school district since 1991.
Instead of the $12.165 million ordered, the Warren Town Council voted in April 2012, and voters agreed at Financial Town Meeting that May, to pay the district $11.75 million for the coming school year, the same amount the town had provided the previous year.
In response, the school district filed suit against the town later last year.
After numerous hearings and meetings, Superior Court Associate Justice Luis Matos met with both sides Friday and after an hour of testimony, said he will soon make his decision.
The district seeks a declaratory judgement that the Town of Warren is in violation of state laws that govern the financing of the local school district; and wants a Writ of Mandamus, an order that the town pay the amount called for last year, including punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
“This breaks down very simply,” school district attorney Andrew Henneous told Justice Matos on Friday.
“The town didn’t like the amount of money they were required to pay (but) they don’t have the right to unilaterally decide that they’re going to pay whatever they want to pay.”
Under the state laws that created the regional district and govern its finances, the amount each town pays in educational support every year is determined by the Joint Finance Committee. Made up of representatives from each town, the board currently has six Bristol members and three from Warren; the number of representatives from each town is determined by population.
After a contentious series of joint finance and local budget meetings last Spring, the Warren Town Council voted unanimously last April to “level fund” the district at the same amount given the previous year, despite the finance committee’s order.
Following the council vote, Warren officials questioned the finance committee’s numbers and also took issue with the school district’s disclosure of information, including enrollment and financial figures, town officials had sought. They also later pointed to a subsequent vote of the Financial Town Meeting in May, at which Warren voters approved the level-funded amount, and not that settled on by the finance committee.
The town’s voters, Warren Town Solicitor Anthony DeSisto wrote in a memo to the court, “did not approve, but rather rejected, the excess budget request at the Town Financial Meeting. Therefore, (the school department) does not have a ‘clear legal right’ to the funds that were not approved.”
Mr. DeSisto alleged also that the school district failed to adequately publicize finance hearings and was not forthcoming with detailed information about the budget, and how funds would be spent; he noted also that Warren Town Manager Thomas Gordon received 900 pages of raw data on the school budget only after filing an open records request.
Also significantly, Mr. DeSisto said, the district provided enrollment figures during the budgeting process that, in the end, were off by 88 students. Given the average per pupil expenditure, that discrepancy alone accounts for more than $400,000.
In court on Friday, Mr. Henneous said that many of the town’s arguments — the enrollment figures, timeliness and semantics in the state law that govern the district’s finances — are “red herrings.” In seeking a declaratory judgement and writ, he said, the issues before the court are actually quite simple, and come down only to the state law that has governed the district’s finances for 21 years without a hitch. That law, and not the Financial Town Meeting, gives the finance authority, and not Warren’s Financial Town Meeting or town council, the right to set the school aid amount:
“There is no legal issue here,” he said, saying the legislation that governs the district’s finances is “crystal clear.”
“We see this case as nothing more than the town’s refusal to pay. This is as clear as the day is long. There is no legal issue here.”
Bristol Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo also appeared in court Friday, as Bristol was included as an interested party in the case. He noted that if Warren officials wanted to contest the finance committee’s decision, there was a “safety valve” in state law allowing officials to appeal it last Spring. Warren did not do so, he said.
“If either town can, just at its whim,” ignore the finance committee’s decision, “then why have this legislation?”
Though Mr. DeSisto on Friday sought an additional hearing on the matter, Judge Matos said he will render his decision either in person, or through a written order.
As for Warren’s claims, he said:
“I understand why the town is not happy” with the joint finance committee, he said. “But they have their voice there. This court is not here to decide whether that’s fair or not.”
Mr. DeSisto said that if the decision goes against the town, Warren will have to hold a special Financial Town Meeting to authorize the release of the $416,000, plus any other costs.