Woonsocket students could miss out on two months of education if the School Committee follows through on a proposal to close schools in April.
Facing a $10 million deficit that has raised the specter of bankruptcy, School Committee members disclosed they are considering a plan to end the school year on April 5 if the state does not speed up delivery of education funds normally due in June. That proposal will be discussed when the committee meets tomorrow.
Significant paycuts are also on the table to deal with the shortfall. The Woonsocket Education Department could soon withhold a portion of every employee's paycheck to cope with the cash crunch. The possible payroll trimming is part of a deficit-reduction plan the School Committee approved unanimously Monday afternoon.
"We need to show the state that we're working hard and willing do whatever we can to get them to accelerate the payments for June," Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier told a crowd gathered for the meeting in the Middle School’s Hamlet Street building. "We don't want to cut everyone's pay, but we're in a situation that's bigger than us. This is just an option that's been left open."
Teachers and other school employees who crowded the meeting room interrupted the discussion several times with sarcastic guffaws. When the meeting broke up, however, they avoided reporters' questions. "I don't have an opinion,” one teacher said. "We're not sure what to think."
School Committee members and city officials have known since the start of 2012 that the school department would face more red ink this year. Until last week, however, they had no idea how big the deficit would be. Finance planners for both the schools and City Hall released their estimate for the first time last Monday: The schools are facing an estimated $7.3 million shortfall this year, and owe another $2.7 million from the year before.
As a result, the city now faces the possibility of municipal bankruptcy and state receivership, and taxpayers are being told they will likely receive supplemental tax bills sometime in the weeks ahead.
Superintendent of Schools Giovanna Donoyon emphasized the possible pay cuts mentioned in the deficit-reduction plan might never happen. She told the committee and those who filled the meeting room that if the state agrees to send June funds now, there may be enough money available until the city begins receiving payments for supplemental tax bills. As yet, however, there has been no official decision to issue those tax bills.
That explanation did not mollify committee members Vimala Phongsavanh, who objected to possible paycheck cuts. She proposed scrapping that portion of the deficit-reduction plan, but only Eleanor Nadeau supported her effort. "We made a promise to honor contracts," Phongsavanh said. "Our word should mean something."
Other committee members said they had no choice but to support the full financial plan. "The situation is so dire," said Christopher Roberts, "I don't
see how we can expect to pay everyone what they're due until the end of the year. I'd rather pay them, say, 80 percent every week, than to someday surprise them with nothing."
"We have to pass this today to show the state we're working in good faith," added John Donlon.
At one point in the discussion, Maguire Forcier responded sharply to derisive laughter from teachers. "This isn't a joke," she told them. "If your paychecks bounce, you won't be laughing. We're taking steps to prepare for the worst, while praying for the best."
The union representing teachers has not yet taken a stand. "These are unprecedented times," local president Jeff Partington said after the meeting. "At this point, I have no idea where this could end up. We'll have to evaluate this plan in the best interests of our members."
The plan also calls for advertising two school department jobs: executive director of finance and operations, and finance manager. No other vacant positions, however, will be filled this year, including those of deputy superintendent and elementary school principal.
In addition, the School Committee will also ask unions for changes in contracts, and the superintendent is seeking waivers to some of the state's education requirements.
The School Committee has already made at least one cut to employee expenditures: Stacy Busby, the school department's business manager,
has lost her $90,000-a-year salary. She has been on-leave from her job — but was until recently still being paid — ever since the looming deficit came to light earlier this year. The School Department has scheduled a closed-door meeting for March 21 to discuss her employment status.
That's not the only step taken to shrink the deficit. The School Committee has ordered a spending freeze on all purchases, raised rental fees for school facilities and athletic fields, and hiked the price of lunch in school cafeterias.
Donoyon also has a strategy to tackle the $4 million now owed to vendors who provide services to the school department. The state's Department of Education will begin paying those bills that are now 90 days past due, which should cut the debt in half. Most of those bills involve special education students placed in programs not offered in Woonsocket's public schools.