WOONSOCKET – The School Committee voted 4-1 Wednesday night to ask the state of Rhode Island to take control of the city’s cash-strapped public education system.
The School Committee will send a letter to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist saying it can’t operate with available funds and still comply with the state-mandated Basic Education Plan.
“Our fiduciary responsibility is to both educate Woonsocket’s approximately six thousand youths while also operating with a balanced budget,” the letter says. “This simply cannot be done.”
The Woonsocket Education Department is facing a combined $10 million budget deficit for the last two fiscal years, and will likely incur another $7 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins in about two weeks without massive cuts or an infusion of new revenue.
Hopes for the latter were dashed when the General Assembly adjourned early Wednesday without approving a 13 percent supplemental tax increase on city residents to begin closing the budget shortfall. The prospect of bankruptcy has already prompted Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly to place the city under the control of a Budget Commission, which had lobbied legislators to pass the “fifth quarter” tax, as the City Council and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine had earlier.
The failure of the supplemental tax has left school officials to propose a budget of roughly $62 million next year, a figure they know is $6 to $8 million short. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday night in Harris Hall.
The supplemental tax would not only have helped close the existing budget deficit, but the expected shortfall as well, because the 13 percent supplemental tax would have been built onto the existing tax base forever. But it was precisely what commissioners saw as a balm for the city’s woes that state legislators saw as its chief flaw. Taxpayers, they argued, are already too tapped-out to pay more and local leaders should explore more aggressive cuts as a strategy of first resort for dealing with the financial crisis.
Since the failure of the supplemental tax law, the budget commission’s focus has shifted to exactly that. Chairman William Sequino Jr. said Wednesday that the coming austerity measures will impact retirees, city workers, and services.
So far, the Rhode Island Department of Education has said little in response to the School Committee’s request. “We’re working on it,” a RIDE spokesman said Thursday morning.