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 â€śa non-starter,â€ť adding that it is â€śjust inconceivableâ€ť 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 governorâ€™s office but several others said there is virtually no chance that such permission would be forthcoming.
â€śWe are prepared to take the steps necessary to work with the Woonsocket delegation to prevent the schools from closing,â€ť Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed told The Call Tuesday.
â€śI 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.
â€śWe discussed the potential cash flow issues as well as the long term financial issues that confront the city,â€ť she said.
â€śThere 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€ť state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly told The Call. â€śItâ€™s 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€ť
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.
â€śFirst I heard about it,â€ť Fox said when asked about the possible school committee action at the end of the House session on Tuesday. â€śThatâ€™s not a good thing. I donâ€™t think that would be good for the quality of education. I donâ€™t think less school is better for anybody.â€ť He said he would need time to come up with strategies to address the situation.
â€śObviously, that is not a viable solution,â€ť Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien said. â€śItâ€™s the adults who have mismanaged this issue and itâ€™s not the children who should be the ones to suffer. That should be the last possible remedy â€“ actually, thatâ€™s not a remedy at all. How much can we possibly shortchange these kids? Woonsocket has really low test scores as it is and now weâ€™re going to tell the kids that theyâ€™re out early because we canâ€™t afford to pay for them any more? Itâ€™s ridiculous.â€ť
Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said, â€śBefore 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 donâ€™t believe the commissioner has ever given permission to even close schools for a half a day, never mind the remainder of the year.
â€śItâ€™s detrimental to the children,â€ť she added, â€śand I think more information should have been dispersed before they put out a statement like that.â€ť
Asked if there is something the legislative delegation can do to help, Baldelli-Hunt said, â€śWeâ€™ve never even been approached by anyone.â€ť
Sen. Roger Picard responded with a flat â€śNoâ€ť when asked if the city would be allowed to shut schools down early. â€śWeâ€™re 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.
â€śWeâ€™ll do whatever we can to assist the school department and the city,â€ť Sen. Marc Cote added. â€śWeâ€™re 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€ť
Tim Duffy, director of the RI Association of School Committees, said, â€śHow (Woonsocket) resolves the monetary issue remains to be seen, but I donâ€™t think the commissioner would suspend the 180 requirement to let the schools close early.â€ť