Six months after the Warren Town Council defied a mandate that they pay $12.16 million for education this school year, the Bristol Warren Regional School District has made it official and filed suit against the town, setting the stage for a showdown on how schools are funded in this regional district.
The district’s complaint, filed in Rhode Island Superior Court on September 6, seeks to force Warren to pay the full amount of education aid approved by the Joint Finance Committee in late March. Town officials said then, and continue to maintain, that they’ll only pay $11.75 million this year, the same as last year — $416,000 less than mandated.
“We just can’t do more,” Warren Town Council vice president David Frerichs said.
At this point, the parties involved in the complaint are being served, said the school district’s attorney, Andrew Henneous. There’s no time table for hearings, he said, adding in an e-mail that once everyone involved is served, the parties will file responses with the court.
In the meantime, it doesn’t appear that the $416,000 is slowing down or impacting education in Bristol Warren. Superintendent Melinda Thies said Monday that the district is operating normally, with no impact yet from the shortfall.
“It hasn’t gotten to that point at this point in time,” she said. “We are working with the money we have. There is an expectation that the town will comply with the law; there’s nothing else we can do.”
At the same time, she said, representatives of Bristol and Warren have been meeting to discuss ways to avoid the kind of confrontations that led to the shortfall earlier this year.
“We are making progress. I have met with both (Bristol Town Administrator Diane) Mederos and (Warren Town Manager Tom) Gordon,” she said. “We are working to move forward.”
Warren councilors said the budgetary impasse earlier this year stemmed from two things: First, a new statewide education aid formula that will severely decrease the amount of state aid Bristol Warren will receive over the next seven years, leaving the towns on the hook for more;
And second, a local funding formula that gives authority over setting a school budget with the Joint Finance Committee, which is made up of six Bristol residents and three Warren residents. That imbalance — though more or less equal, proportionately, to the number of students that come from each town — put Warren in a bind this spring, leaving the town unable to counter demands from the Bristol-heavy JFC that they pay more, councilors said.
Councilor Cathie Tattrie, who is a JFC member, said she and the other councilors are waiting to see what happens with the court case. But they’re already looking past this one year, and at the local JFC make-up and state education formula.
“We’re going to have to work very closely with our legislators to try and find a way to come up with a better (formula),” she said. “There were promises made to the regionalized communities and I think it’s disingenuous (for the state) to back out on them, and not figure out a new formula.
As for the JFC representation that favors Bristol, she said, “it pits two communities together. That’s why we have to work on something that’s fair for all.”
“Of course we believe education is important,” added Mr. Frerichs. “But it’s literally breaking the back of the town. (School increases) hit the taxpayers of Warren twice as hard as they do in Bristol.”
And what will happen if the court orders that the town pony up that additional $416,000?
“We will have to pay unless we want to challenge the court,” he said.
“It would have to come from our general fund,” added Ms. Tattrie. “We can’t get funds from anywhere else; they’re just not there.”