Stanley: Warren may play hardball with schools
The last time they balked, Warren ended up in court. Still, members of the Warren Town Council may take much the same route this coming year as they did last year, when they refused to pay the Joint Finance Committee some $416,000 in school expenses the committee said Warren owed.
Warren Town Council president Chris Stanley said Sunday that the council’s decision last year, to “level fund” the Bristol Warren Regional School District at the same dollar amount it had the year prior, may be the same strategy the council employs this year as the yearly school budget process unfolds.
There has been no real strategy discussion yet, he said. However, “I would imagine that we’re probably going to move in the same direction. In my opinion, we’ve sort of over-funded (the school district) the last few years. I don’t see anything changing.”
Last year, saying Warren could no longer foot the bill for steadily rising school costs and was being unfairly represented on the finance committee, councilors voted — and voters affirmed that decision at Financial Town Meeting in May — to pay the school district $11.75 million in school aid instead of the $12.165 million the finance committee specified. That $11.75 million was the same amount the Town of Warren paid the school district for the 2011-12 school year.
Soon after Warren drew a line in the fiscal sand, the Bristol Warren Regional School District filed suit against the town, seeking to reclaim that money. The case has been in Rhode Island Superior Court ever since, and in September Superior Court Associate Justice Luis Matos said a decision would be forthcoming soon. None has yet been issued.
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 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.
On Sunday, Mr. Stanley said those issues remain, and are compounded this year by news that further changing enrollment figures, as computed by the school department, could cost Warren an additional $1 million-plus this year.
Mr. Stanley said the proof that Warren’s ordered payment was excessive last year is in the pudding:
“They (the school department) obviously haven’t had any trouble running the district” without that $416,000. he said. “They didn’t run out of money; they didn’t need it, apparently. They have a surplus.”