PROVIDENCE â No matter how the Woonsocket School Committee votes tonight, state officials say they are not going to allow the city to end its school year in April.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee called that idea âa non-starter,â adding that it is âjust inconceivableâ that the last two and a half months of the school year could get lopped off the education calendar.
Several officials pointed to a provision in state law saying that the commissioner of education would have to give the school department a waiver from the requirement that schools be in session 180 days a school year.
Elliot Krieger, spokesman for Commissioner Deborah Gist, referred all questions to the governorâs office but several others said there is virtually no chance that such permission would be forthcoming.
âWe are prepared to take the steps necessary to work with the Woonsocket delegation to prevent the schools from closing,â Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed told The Call Tuesday.
âI anticipate we will be reviewing the possibility of advancing school aid in a similar fashion as we did in East Providence.
Paiva Weed says she has been meeting with the governor, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine about fiscal woes of the city and school department, but not since the committee made is bombshell announcement on Monday.
âWe discussed the potential cash flow issues as well as the long term financial issues that confront the city,â she said.
âThere are some small things the state can do to advance their aid payments, but that would not be significant enough to resolve their issues,â state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly told The Call. âItâs pretty clear based on the deficit from last year and the deficit they are in the current year that they have a definite problem.â
Gallogly said that before the state would take steps like advancing education aid payments, it would want to see a plan from city and school officials to resolve their financial problems moving forward, such as whether they have ideas for supplemental revenue streams to address the deficits. Before a simple step such as advancing state aid payments could be taken, Gallogly said, the school department would have to request it.
She said she expects to keep working with city officials on the problems, rather than have the state step in with an overseer, budget commission or receiver to take a larger role in city finances.
âFirst I heard about it,â Fox said when asked about the possible school committee action at the end of the House session on Tuesday. âThatâs not a good thing. I donât think that would be good for the quality of education. I donât think less school is better for anybody.â He said he would need time to come up with strategies to address the situation.
âObviously, that is not a viable solution,â Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien said. âItâs the adults who have mismanaged this issue and itâs not the children who should be the ones to suffer. That should be the last possible remedy â actually, thatâs not a remedy at all. How much can we possibly shortchange these kids? Woonsocket has really low test scores as it is and now weâre going to tell the kids that theyâre out early because we canât afford to pay for them any more? Itâs ridiculous.â
Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said, âBefore they put out a statement like that, they should have checked with the commissioner. They need permission from the commissioner to do that and I donât believe the commissioner has ever given permission to even close schools for a half a day, never mind the remainder of the year.
âItâs detrimental to the children,â she added, âand I think more information should have been dispersed before they put out a statement like that.â
Asked if there is something the legislative delegation can do to help, Baldelli-Hunt said, âWeâve never even been approached by anyone.â
Sen. Roger Picard responded with a flat âNoâ when asked if the city would be allowed to shut schools down early. âWeâre going to work with the Senate President, the Speaker, the governor, to do whatever we need to address this financial crisis, at least in the short term so we can maintain the education for the students in our hometown.
âWeâll do whatever we can to assist the school department and the city,â Sen. Marc Cote added. âWeâre going to have to ensure that whatever assistance we are seeking from the state is accompanied by a sound and reasonable plan from our community so that we can justify the assistance.â
Tim Duffy, director of the RI Association of School Committees, said, âHow (Woonsocket) resolves the monetary issue remains to be seen, but I donât think the commissioner would suspend the 180 requirement to let the schools close early.â