The mayor predicted his takeover of the school department would go smoothly.
On Thursday night, June 22, the School Committee declared the path would be bumpy.
“Last week, Mayor Polisena Jr. announced a misguided effort to take over the Johnston School Department,” Johnston School Committee Chairman Robert LaFazia said, reading a prepared statement into the public record. “Let me be clear: under no circumstances will we agree to allow the Mayor to ‘take over’ the District.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. was seated in the audience — silent during public session. After the meeting, he spoke to reporters.
“I had a meeting with the superintendent and the chairman of the school department and we had a conversation that in order for the town to appropriate this large sum of money, that there was going to have to be oversight,” Polisena said. “It’s not financially prudent for me to keep writing them checks.”
Polisena flagged consecutive school department deficits as a signal decisive action was required.
“They can talk about a lack of aid for the past 10 years but the reality is they’ve only been running deficits for the past two years, and this with an increase in aid,” Polisena said.
The school department has struggled to balance its budget. They’re requesting 10 percent more funding from the town over last year’s request.
Earlier this year, Polisena hired a Pennsylvania-based auditing firm to look at school finances.
The School Committee insists they’ve been historically underfunded, and budget woes are tied directly to unfunded state mandates.
“The members of the School Committee and I believe the Mayor’s ill-advised attempt to supersede this Committee’s authority granted by state law will not improve educational outcomes for Johnston students and may even make the situation worse,” LaFazia read to the audience gathered in the middle school library. “The reality is, the challenges the district is facing have been caused by financial mismanagement, not by the District or the School Department, but by the town.”
The School Committee presented data compiled, showing Johnston’s increase in town appropriation over the past decade, and comparing it to other, similar Ocean State municipalities.
“For over 10 years, our teachers and administrators have done an exceptional job with considerably fewer resources than our peer districts in Rhode Island because the Town has failed to appropriately fund Johnston Public Schools,” LaFazia said. “The difficulties the District has faced are multifaceted. Johnston like most other public school districts across Rhode Island has faced drastically higher costs due to increasing numbers of special needs students and multilingual learners in addition to soaring operating and facilities costs as a lingering result of the pandemic.”
Quorum & Majority
Polisena attended both Wednesday and Thursday night’s School Committee meetings with three of five Town Council members — District 1, 2 and 3 representatives Linda L. Folcarelli, Lauren Garzone and Alfred T. Carnevale.
The three council members represented both a quorum and a majority of Town Council, strongly signaling to the School Committee that Polisena had the votes should a resolution come before the governing body. All three Town Council members refused to comment at the meeting and did not speak during public session.
“Ask the mayor,” Carnevale replied when asked to comment on the situation with the schools.
Following Wednesday night’s meeting, Polisena met Folcarelli, Garzone, Carnevale and the town’s Finance Director Joseph Chiodo on the sidewalk outside Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School. They spoke for several minutes and then parted ways.
The three town council members sat silently through Thursday night’s meeting, as well.
Johnston Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti, who represents District 5, said, “the mayor's actions were very premature.”
Earlier Wednesday, prior to the meeting, Town Council President Robert V. Russo was cautiously optimistic.
Neither Civetti nor Russo attended last week’s School Committee meetings.
“I am hopeful the town and school administration can build a consensus as to the financial solution to this problem,” Russo wrote via email before the meetings. “I prefer to keep the resolution internal within the town and not have state or court intervention as that would not be in the best interest of the taxpayers and students.”
After the School Committee released its statement vowing to resist the “takeover,” Russo remained optimistic and encouraged cooperation.
“As to the School Committee’s statement — I understand the frustrations, but I fully support funding where necessary once an objective evaluation is done to determine any financial weaknesses that need to be repaired prior to adding more money to the mix — that does not solve any underlying problem,” Russo wrote via email on Tuesday. “I always believe the town and all its departments should work together to identify problems and work together in a constructive manner to resolve them. I have done this in the past on much more serious issues and the town has flourished by everyone rowing in the right direction. Constructive not destructive is always the path to follow.”
Apples to Apples
Over the past two years, as the town finalized the budgeting process, the school department has blamed skyrocketing required funding for out-of-district tuition for special education and vocational programs.
“Mayor Polisena Jr. says we cannot afford to invest more, but the reality is we cannot afford not to support our students,” LaFazia told the audience. “Despite higher costs associated with providing high-quality education services to our children, the local appropriation to the District has flatlined.”
LaFazia referenced school funding in towns like Barrington, Westerly, Portsmouth, Burrilville, Lincoln and South Kingstown. LaFazia estimated that despite increasing enrollment in Johnston Schools (up 114 students total from 2012 to 2021; about 4 percent), the school department’s local appropriation has only grown by 1.31 percent over the same period.
“Nearly all of our peers across Rhode Island have greatly increased the local appropriation to their similarly sized school districts, and in many cases, despite declining enrollment,” LaFazia explained. “The local appropriation to the Johnston Public School District increased by just $484,873 between Fiscal Year 2012 and 2021, while enrollment increased by 114 students during that time.”
In Barrington, between 2012 and 2021, for example, enrollment only climbed by 60 students (less than 2 percent), but the school department saw its local appropriation grow by 18.87 percent, according to LaFazia.
“In Fiscal Year 2022 the Johnston Public School District did receive an additional $1 million in its local appropriation,” he admitted. “In total, the two increases in 13 years amount to less than 4 percent.”
Westerly’s enrollment dropped by 689 students (20 percent), but the town still boosted its local funding by more than 12 percent, according to LaFazia.
The School Committee decided to present its budget as-drafted Thursday night. Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. read off the key line items and totals.
The total expenses proposed in the FY 2024 school department budget amount to $65,466,300, as compared to the FY 2023 budget’s $60,434,216.
That’s a $5,032,084 difference year-over-year, or more than an 8 percent increase in expenses.
The School Department is requesting a town appropriation of $42,610,281, $4,081,266 more than the town contributed last year, a more than 10 percent increase.
Polisena has committed to providing $2.1 million more to the district, over last year, but called it an “exorbitant amount of money.” The nearly $2 million gap between the mayor’s promised funding increase and the school department’s request may lead to “major cuts” across Johnston schools, according to concerns expressed by the LaFazia and School Committee member Susan Mansolillo.
Out of District Tuition is projected to cost the district $3,600,500 next year, an increase of $398,000 (more than 12 percent). The estimate for that category, however, often proves unpredictable.
Major increases have been proposed for Special Services ($761,298 higher in the proposed budget, a 19 percent increase), Salaries ($1,869,229, 6 percent) and Benefits ($1,409,441, 10 percent).
In the past year, DiLullo has reported great difficulty hiring and retaining educators. Johnston schools have been forced to rely heavily on a severely depleted substitute pool to meet minimum classroom staffing requirements.
“Prior to a new collective bargaining agreement last year, Johnston teachers had not received a wage increase in six years,” LaFazia explained. “We welcome the Mayor’s interest in the dire challenges facing Johnston Public Schools and have already committed to fully supporting the audit of the District’s finances. The members of the School Committee and I are hopeful that we will be able to work together to identify sustainable solutions that will help the Johnston Public School District continue to provide high-quality educational outcomes to students and adequately support school staff.”
Thursday night’s meeting began with an executive session to discuss collective bargaining or litigation linked to the “Town takeover of school department” and the “job performance or administrator’s contract.”
After LaFazia finished reading his prepared remarks, Polisena said he was “disappointed.”
“They received the highest annual increase in … town aid ever, the $2.1 million that I’ve given them, and they still can’t balance the budget,” Polisena said. “So the town is willing to work with the school district collaboratively, but it sounds like they don’t want to work with the town.”
The School Committee met twice last week. They held a special meeting on Wednesday, June 21, and an Emergency Meeting on Thursday night, June 22.
On Wednesday, the night’s agenda called for a budget workshop, discussion and vote.
However, Polisena addressed the School Committee publicly for the first time since announcing his “takeover” plans. Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Polisena had anticipated support for his “takeover” plans.
“I think we’re going to go back to the table,” Polisena said. “And this is all about the kids. The district has to come out of this stronger at the end of it … I’m willing to do that, it’s just a matter of whether or not the School Committee is willing to do that.”
LaFazia insists that he and the School Committee regularly requested school department audits, to ensure finances were sound. According to LaFazia, the previous mayor (Joseph M. Polisena, father of the current mayor), rejected those requests.
“I can’t speak to that,” Polisena Jr. said last Thursday night. “If there was an aid issue earlier, the school department has the responsibility to speak up, both to the town, whether they do it informally in discussions, or they could file a ‘Caruolo’ against the town. They never did that. So that was a dereliction of their duty as School Committee members to pass budgets in the past, knowing that the budget that they passed was not enough to fund the school department.”
Polisena referenced the Caruolo Act, which was named after legislative sponsor, former state representative George Caruolo. The Rhode Island law established a mechanism to resolve budget disputes between school committees and municipal governments and provided a legal route allowing School Committees to sue towns for under-funding basic education needs.
The Town Council and School Committee share the same solicitor, attorney William J. Conley Jr. His seat was empty at Thursday night’s emergency School Committee meeting.
The inherent conflict, should the “takeover” attempt lead to litigation, has necessitated the hiring of separate outside counsel for both the town and the school department.
“I have no comment regarding this matter,” Conley wrote via email Tuesday, refusing to answer questions about the conflict.
Polisena has enlisted attorney and former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a partner at Johnston law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara, at $275 an hour. Fung confirmed the pay rate Tuesday afternoon.
“That is my rate for this engagement,” Fung said via email.
Fung attended Thursday’s School Committee meeting and stood next to Polisena as the mayor answered questions from reporters.
In April 2010, then-Cranston Mayor Fung supported a failed City Council resolution to petition the General Assembly to repeal the Caruolo Act. Cranston’s city government and school department had been to court repeatedly to argue school funding disputes.
At the time, Fung’s director of administration Robin Muksian-Schutt said that Fung supported repealing the Act because the legislation led to exorbitant legal fees for both the city and the school.
“[The Act] has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” she said in 2010, according to reporting in the Cranston Herald. “We have spent $400,000 on this Caruolo alone.”
On Thursday, the School Committee hired its own legal counsel, voting unanimously to enlist former Johnston school employee, now lawyer, Mary Ann Carroll, a partner with the Providence law firm, Henneous Carroll Lombardo. Carroll did not reply to requests for comment by press-time. Her pay rate, working for the School Committee will be $250 an hour, according to DiLullo.
Last week’s pair of School Committee meetings were the first time the proposed school takeover was discussed in public session.
“I don't think any action should have been taken until … that study came in and it was reviewed between the administration the Town Council the school committee (and) school officials,” Civetti said on Monday. He was previously in favor of auditing the school department’s books, but he also urged his fellow council members to take a look at the town’s finances.
“Once we see that report (the school audit) we could at least identify what the professionals thought the issues may be and try to deal with it from there,” Civetti explained. “In any event, although I am not an attorney, it is my understanding that the Town Council (and) the mayor's office has no control over the school department. That control lies within the School Committee. I am all-for providing additional funding for the school department, while also meeting with the school department and reviewing the report which is due later this summer.”
Not Just Johnston
Johnston native and current Cranston Mayor Kenneth Hopkins was reluctant to offer an opinion on the funding controversy brewing in his former hometown.
“I let the Superintendent take care of school business,” Hopkins said of his approach to dealing with the Cranston school department. “We have a solid relationship and if we have concerns throughout the year, we have periodic meetings for discussion.”
Former Cranston mayor and current Cranston School Committee Chairman Michael A. Traficante said he wouldn’t comment directly on the Johnston situation but agreed to discuss the complicated relationships between Ocean State municipalities and their school districts.
“State law makes it very clear that the school committee has total care and control and custody of school business in all respects,” he explained. “It is the duty of the school committee to work with the school administration to, basically, tabulate policy, to balance budgets and to select personnel for a variety of positions. If, I'm saying if a school committee runs into a situation where they run into something delicate then it’s their fiduciary responsibility to balance that budget and make the proper corrections to make sure they end up with a balanced budget.”
Apart from being against state law and warning Polisena that controlling school finances is intensely complicated because of state and federal regulations, Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, suggests that the mayor focus on the number of Johnston students sent out of district.
Duffy said Johnston pays about $2.9 million annually to send students out of district.
“That is almost $3 million that goes out the window every year that Johnston taxpayers are paying (to other districts and charter schools),” he said.
Warwick City Council President Steve McAllister had a sympathetic ear for Polisena.
“I do think it’s reasonable for a Mayor or city council to put conditions on additional funding when school departments continue to come back year after year looking for more funding,” he wrote in an email. “I know here in Warwick over 50 percent of the taxes goes to schools and it sounds like it is the same in Johnston … Nobody wants to be surprised with a huge bill. So being open and talking about budgets year-round is important. We all have the same constituents so in the end all of the different branches of government need to work together.”
Warwick School Committee Chairman David Testa has followed the tug and pull over school budgets for years. While he doesn’t have all the background to the Johnston situation, he applauded Polisena for tackling the issue but also offered a warning.
“I can understand a deficit in one year, but not significant deficits for two or three years in a row,” Testa wrote via email. “But in the end, municipalities taking over school departments is just not a good idea, in my view, because it mixes politics and education.”
He said he agrees with Polisena that schools should have the power to tax to retain the power to make financial decisions.
“I was happy to hear a Mayor come out and affirm what I've been saying for years — that this model is highly flawed and that, like that which occurs in most of the country, school districts should have the power to tax so they can control their own destiny,” Testa wrote.
At least one elected official saw the latest deficit coming, a year in advance. Last July, during the former mayor’s final budget presentation, Civetti addressed the School Committee before voting.
“I asked the school committee members and the school officials on several occasions if they were okay with what the administration was appropriating to them,” Civetti recalled. “On each occasion, the answer was ‘yes.’ Although I believe I ended the discussion last year stating that I think the fiscal 2023 budget was very optimistic on both the town and school side and I had predicted that both departments would run a deficit for (Fiscal Year 2023).”
According to Civetti, Johnston’s falling woefully behind on state-mandated auditing requirements. The past two years’ audits have yet to be finalized.
“We’re waiting on the School Department to give us their figures,” Polisena said Thursday.
Johnston Town Council will hold a budget hearing at 5:30 p.m. on June 29 at the Johnston Municipal Court, 1600 Atwood Ave. Town Council is expected to vote on a $129,081,852 town budget, according to the agenda.
Council will also consider a resolution “authorizing the Mayor town oversight, on an interim basis, of the financial and business operations of the Johnston School Department.”
Now that both the schools and the town have hired attorneys, both entities appear poised to battle it out in court.
“I would hope not,” Polisena said. “I don’t think anybody wins if this goes to court.”
Editor’s Note: Beacon Communications reporters John Howell and Ed Kdonian contributed to this story.
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