WOONSOCKET — The state-appointed Budget Commission Monday reserved the right not to recall up to 98 teachers who are still holding pink slips, about a fifth of the Woonsocket Education Department’s teaching workforce.
Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan was before the panel asking for permission to recall 56 teachers immediately to fill known vacancies, including a number of state-mandated positions.
The urgency came, in part, because the WED was set to hold a “job fair” yesterday afternoon in attempts to allow teachers to file internal applications for those positions to meet its scheduling obligations to the Woonsocket Teachers Guild.
Partly on the suggestion of WTG President Jeff Partington, the commission voted 4-0 in favor of a resolution that makes it clear selection for a position does not guarantee employment next school year.
The key issue is funding, or the lack of it. As the 2012 legislative session appeared to be winding down, possibly as early as today, without action on the Budget Commission’s request to levy a 13 percent supplemental tax bill, Commissioner Peder A. Schaefer said it was still unknown where the WED would get the funding to pay for all the positions it is seeking.
The unresolved variable of the supplemental tax bill has forced the city to post legal advertisements notifying the general public that next year’s WED budget will be $62.1 million, a figure the city knows is $6 to $8 million too little, according to Commissioner Peder A. Schaefer.
“I don’t know how we, as fiduciaries, can approve something that you have confirmed as insufficient,” Schaefer told Donoyan.
The third meeting of the Budget Commission in Harris Hall lasted more than three hours and marked the panel’s sharpest confrontation yet with Donoyan over the WED’s inability to supply the panel with bankable data on which to build a budget forecast.
Last week, for example, Donoyan said the WED, though already “crucified” by cuts in programs and personnel, could hobble along next year without recalling 42 of the 98 teachers still on layoff.
Yesterday, Donoyan did an about face, saying that all the teachers who were notified of layoffs earlier this year will be needed. But she couldn’t say what they’d be needed for, what schools they’d be assigned to or how much money it was going to cost.
“We can’t seem to get good information,” Commissioner Dina Dutremble, a former business manager for the WED, complained at one point. “We get a lot of stories and analogies. We’re not getting data.”
The information gap prompted Commission Chairman William Sequino to issue Donoyan an ultimatum of sorts. If she and the School Committee don’t take some action to fill vacancies for a full-time finance director, a controller, or both, by their next meeting on Wednesday night, the panel would promptly do it for them.
“We need someone to put the books back together,” Sequino said. “The two groups need to get together, the School Committee, the superintendent, you need to give us some names. I don’t know any other way. It is extremely painful getting information from the school side.”
During a break, Sequino said the panel hasn’t yet crossed the bridge of whether it wants to consolidate the positions of controller and finance director for the WED. Currently, the school department is operating with a two-day-a-week interim finance director selected by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), Ralph Malafronte, a former superintendent of schools in Barrington.
The crisis in the WED is often traced to shoddy financial controls dating back to the reign of former Business Manager Stacey Busby, who was predicting a modest surplus for fiscal 2011. Toward the end of last calendar year, Busby realized she was wrong, prompting an independent audit which forecast a compounded $10 million deficit by June 30. Busby was fired several months ago.
The deficit has created a cash crunch that has left the WED without reserves to meet its last teacher payroll for the year on June 29. It is also some $6.5 million in arrears to numerous vendors, including Durham School Services, its student transportation contractor, which is owed nearly $1 million.
“It’s really jeopardizing our organization,” Stephen Schmuck, a representative of Durham told the panel. “I don’t know how much longer we can go on.”
Durham will finish out the school year (which ends Thursday), but a backup company might come in for summer school, and its unlikely to exercise its option to serve as the WED’s transportation provider next year unless it’s paid soon, Schmuck said.
The proposed supplemental tax bill would enable the city to raise about $6.6 million, costing the average homeowner about $350, to begin bridging the deficits and raising revenue to pay vendors. The bill would also allow the city to borrow $3.2 million immediately from Citizens Bank to eke through the fiscal year.
The supplemental tax would become part of the permanent tax base, helping close the structural deficit in the WED in the future.
But the enabling legislation reached an impasse about three weeks ago when State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt, in a last-minute change of heart, withdrew what little support she had expressed for the measure previously. As of yesterday afternoon, the measure was still in limbo, but Baldelli Hunt said she and other members of the Woonsocket delegation had made a “five-point proposal” to State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly last Wednesday that could potentially revive the bill, depending on Gallogly’s response.
“We need to hear something soon and more likely than not we have to hear something today,” Baldelli Hunt said. “If we adjourn tomorrow, we’re adjourned.”
Despite the Budget Commission’s explanations about the purpose of the supplemental tax, Baldelli Hunt is unconvinced the panel has a solid plan for balancing the budget. She thinks the panel should be looking for cuts before levying new taxes, a sentiment that a number of speakers expressed during an open comment portion of the commission meeting on Monday.
Evan Ardente, owners of Ardente Supply, said he and other small business owners are on the verge of looking for another community in which to set up shop.
“I want to stay in this community but you’re going to tax us right out of it,” he said.
Addressing some of the comments, Schaefer, the associate director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said the supplemental tax bill is not the whole solution to the problem, but a necessary element of rebuilding the city’s fiscal house.
Three years of “poor state aid decisions” have hurt cities like Woonsocket more than other communities and now there’s a structural deficit of between $6 and $8 million in the WED’s budget.
“That’s the bottom line,” he said. “With this supplemental tax bill we can stabilize the situation and move forward.”