A resolution to change our by-laws in order to oust the chairperson by a majority vote instead of a super majority clearly shows that we are witnessing a political game. This change will mean the school committee can play musical chairs. So, the chairperson and or vice-chairperson will need to go along to get along or they will be voted out. If a member wants to control the agenda, he/she doesn’t need to be the chairperson; all they need is two votes of support and put their ideas on the agenda in order to get their way. Why is this political power play necessary? It is not.
Let me remind everyone of what the Woonsocket Education Department has been faced with in 2012. Our finance department was completely in disarray. Nobody, not even our finance director or our superintendent knew what was going on. After our finance director was terminated, the extent of how bad it was soon became evident. We received notices from all our vendors that they would discontinue their services to our district if they were not paid immediately! The superintendent called Mr. Roberts and myself along with the union president Jeff Partington into her office to show us the letters of termination of services and told us that we would not be able to make payroll. Our primary focus had to be on the safety of our students. It was decided that we needed to let the public and state officials know how dire our financial situation was.
Schools providing out-of-district placements for our special needs students told us they would terminate services. The school department does not have the staff or programs these children need. Also, our district did not have enough subs to cover our classrooms and trying to assign subs without being able to pay them would be impossible. Our transportation services would be discontinued and we even faced the loss of electricity and oil to light and heat our schools.
It was decided to place closing of schools on the agenda to inform everyone of our desperate situation. This was a group decision, not just mine. I called every member of the school committee to inform them of our financial situation and the risk of discontinuation of services. A couple of members felt that we could place all the children in the cafeterias of each school with a couple of teachers supervising them. A ridiculous proposition, this action is simply unconstitutional and would be putting children’s safety and well-being in danger. But I must remember the members that proposed this do not have children in our schools.
By placing a resolution to close our schools on our agenda, we where able to get the attention of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and they advanced us our state education aid and the city also advanced us more than $400,000. It worked, but only as a temporary solution.
Our superintendent decided to address our budget and district issues by using a zero base budget strategy. However, before she had time to complete this budget we were faced with the March deadline to give layoff notices to our teaching staff. In order to be sure that we did not end up with employees we no longer needed in the reorganization, we decided that it would be best to layoff all of the teachers. A special meeting took place on Feb. 22 to discuss this. Committeewoman Phongsavanh voted yes to layoff the entire teaching staff of the department.
Now we were faced with coming up with a balanced budget without a business manager.
The city charter demands that the school department provide the mayor with their budget estimate by March and we were now months behind. So, as chair of the school committee, in collaboration with the superintendent, the entire school committee reviewed the budget projections line by line. It took many hours over many days. The superintendent and her directors successfully dealt with an enormous challenge by analyzing accounts in great detail and providing the school committee with the answers we needed to provide the city with the best budget estimate possible under the circumstances. At the conclusion, the spending plan called for $69 million, including $2 million for deficit reduction, but not including our federal grants.
Following that effort, the majority of the school committee felt we needed more help. We then proposed a resolution on our agenda to ask the State to help by taking over local control as a temporary measure. Committeewoman Phongsavanh was the only one to vote no. She felt we should get ourselves out of this. Thankfully, she did not prevail and RIDE has come in to provide critically needed assistance. They are working hard to help put our budget together and have agreed to advance us our state education aid. Thank you, RIDE, for all your help.
So, while three members of our committee are busy playing political games trying to make a name for themselves, I along with Mr. Roberts, the Superintendent, RIDE, the Mayor, and City Council are busy doing our jobs.