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Budget battle may end up in court

November 20, 2011

WOONSOCKET – The budget war between the school department and the city administration will continue for at least another legal skirmish, following a 3-2 vote of the outgoing committee Wednesday night.
The school committee had school department attorney Richard Ackerman lodge an appeal of the city's move to cut school spending last year even though it subsequently cut its $62 million budget to the $59 million figure. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and the city council maintained it was the only funding available for schools.
The appeal remained a dormant issue until Fontaine and the council raised the issue just before the recent city election, while maintaining the unresolved issue could force additional legal expenses and hinder the city's efforts to improve its bond rating.
The council approved a resolution requesting the school committee drop the matter that, in turn, was placed on the committee's agenda for consideration.
A court hearing of the appeal is expected to begin if the parties do not withdraw the action.
During the committee's discussion of the matter on Wednesday night, member Anita McGuire-Forcier continued her past opposition to the appeal, saying the committee's success in balancing the budget to available revenues made it a moot point.
“We were able to balance the budget and the court won't want to deal with us,” McGuire-Forcier argued. The action would only end up costing the city more in legal costs for the past court matter.
If the school department truly wished to pursue legal action for added revenue, it should take that step as a so-called Caruolo Act funding lawsuit and not the appeal, McGuire-Forcier maintained.
School committee member Eleanor Nadeau voiced a differing view when she indicated she would vote to continue the appeal and questioned why the mayor and city council would take the step to ask that it be dropped.
The appeal could end up becoming a legal decision on school funding issues that go beyond Woonsocket, Nadeau argued.
Committee members Linda Majewski and Marc Dubois, the panel's outgoing chairman, joined Nadeau in voicing support for the continued appeal.
“There are questions that need to be put on the table,” Majewski said while echoing Nadeau's position that the issue of school funding in the state remains unresolved.
Dubois, who was elected to a new seat on the council, said he would make a decision as a school committee member while keeping in mind the fact that the budget issues facing the school department may not be resolved.
The department was able to balance its budget in part due to the use of federal stimulus money and, as a result, last year's budget crisis could resurface in the months ahead, he argued.
“At this point, I will support that we do not withdraw the lawsuit and keep this going,” Dubois said.
Dubois, Nadeau and Majewski voted in favor of continuing the case and McGuire-Forcier and School Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh voted against that step.
How long the case continues, however, could depend on the arrival of the committee's newly-elected members, John Donlon and Christopher Roberts, following the panel's reorganization in December.
Roberts joined McGuire-Forcier in campaigning for the election with Fontaine and could serve as a deciding vote to drop the case if the matter were to be reconsidered by the new panel.

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