The chairman calls it a compromise, not a reversal.
On Tuesday night, the Johnston School Committee voted unanimously to pass a resolution “to collaborate and cooperate with the Town of Johnston regarding Johnston School Department finances.”
The committee tweaked and voted on the resolution during a 45-minute closed-door executive session to start Tuesday night’s meeting.
“I want to thank the School Committee and superintendent for agreeing with the council and passing the resolution for Town oversight unanimously,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. “Now it’s time for the hard work to get done.”
Three weeks earlier, on June 22, School Committee Chairman Robert LaFazia read a statement into the record, vowing to resist the mayor’s proposed interim “takeover” of school finances, following the revelation the school budget will again end the year with a sizeable deficit.
“Last week, Mayor Polisena Jr. announced a misguided effort to take over the Johnston School Department,” LaFazia said in late June. “Let me be clear: under no circumstances will we agree to allow the Mayor to ‘take over’ the District.”
On Tuesday, LaFazia struck a different tone. When asked if the resolution passed unanimously by the School Committee was a reversal of his previous pledge, LaFazia said, “No, it’s a compromise. We all just want what’s best for the students.”
“The Johnston School Department (JSD) ended the fiscal year 2021-22 with an $871,996 deficit,” LaFazia read from the resolution during Tuesday night’s meeting. “As deficits are prohibited under state law, the town of Johnston has agreed to loan funds to the school department to cover said deficit. And whereas, the (JSD) is projected to end the fiscal year 2022-23 budget with a deficit, as deficits are prohibited under state law, the town of Johnston has agreed once again to loan funds to the school department once the fiscal year closes to cover the projected over $1 million deficit.”
Polisena attended Tuesday’s meeting, and sat with Town Council members Linda Folcarelli and Lauren Garzone.
“Within a few weeks, the Town will bring in an independent financial expert to go through the school department’s financials so we can get a grasp as to what’s going on over there,” Polisena said early Wednesday morning. “We need to start working now to prepare for (the fiscal year 2024-25) budget and ensure it’s balanced.”
Polisena hired former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a past Republican candidate for Congress and governor, as the town’s attorney. Fung also attended Tuesday’s meeting.
“Allan Fung will be spearheading the effort,” Polisena explained. “The reason I brought him on board is not only the success he had as mayor in Cranston, but similar to the situation now, when he first took office he inherited a structural deficit on the school department side which he ultimately rectified. It makes all the sense in the world to use someone who’s been in the same situation with a department that is actually larger in size than Johnston.”
The school department also hired outside counsel. However, last night’s School Committee resolution may make litigation less likely.
Projecting yet another deficit in the upcoming school year, the School Committee Tuesday night pledged to work with a town-led finance team to trim the budget and cut costs.
“The (JSD) has requested a significant multi-million dollar increase for the fiscal year 2023-24 school budget,” LaFazia read from the resolution. “After reviewing said request, (to assure) that the students of Johnston continue to receive a high-quality education the town of Johnston has agreed to allocate $2.15 million in local appropriations to the school department for the 2023-24 fiscal year. This amount represents the largest local allocation to support the school department in the town’s history.”
The School Committee promised they will work with the town to “implement a deficit reduction plan as well as a corrective action plan that will improve operational and financial efficiencies of the school district while maintaining the high-quality education the Johnston students deserve.”
In March, town council authorized the mayor to enter into an agreement with a Pennsylvania-based auditing firm, to take a close look at the school department’s finances. The School Committee has also agreed to consider the firm’s recommendations once the audit is complete.
The town and school department will now work together to “implement a deficit reduction and corrective action plan so that the school district is no longer operating with a deficit,” concludes the resolution. “The (JSD) will keep the Rhode Island Department of Education and the office of the Auditor General of Rhode Island apprised of said deficit reduction and corrective action plan.”
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