Johnston schools short-staffed?

Mansolillo: ‘I’m very concerned about the safety of our students’


Each month, at their regular meeting, School Committee members are granted a few moments to voice congratulations or share salutations.

At the Sept. 12 meeting, following a brief welcome back statement, School Committee Member Susan Mansolillo switched to a more somber tone.

“I’m concerned that we have open positions in the schools — TA positions,” she warned the district’s parents. “I know that we have budget constraints, but I’m very concerned about the safety of our students. I’m saying it on the record. I know that our budget was not fully funded this year, the way we needed it to be. But I want to say it on the record that we do need the additional funding at some point.”

Earlier this week, Johnston Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. confirmed the district has several open spots.

“Unfortunately, we have at least two or three teacher assistant positions unfilled in some of our schools,” DiLullo explained. “We have advertised on Schoolspring since the end of the 2023 school year to fill available vacancies but have not had qualified applicants. Most recently we advertised for a teacher assistant on Sept. 12 with no applicants to date. The district has also been conservative with filling positions in order to operate within our budget. Currently, we have 10 unfilled positions in the district.”

Taken Over?

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. recently announced an attempted “town takeover” of school finances. While the School Committee initially resisted the move, the board eventually agreed to cooperate with Polisena’s team of financial examiners — Johnston Town Council approved the hiring of a specialized Pennsylvania auditing firm, and Polisena hired attorney and former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a partner at Johnston law firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O'Gara, at $275 an hour.

“While I don’t have any legal authority over the school department, I don’t know if it’s all budgetary constraints,” Polisena wrote in an email earlier this week. “It’s my understanding the school department is suffering from what the town and many private businesses are suffering from too — we can’t find anyone who wants to work. I believe there are positions posted online that haven’t been filled. I would encourage anyone who’s qualified that is in search of employment to apply.”

Mansolillo says the situation’s far more complicated.

“There are several factors impacting our hiring issues,” she explained on Wednesday morning. “First, we currently don’t have the budgetary allowance to hire. Second, our district staff are among the lowest paid in the state so it is difficult to attract new hires but we do usually have good local people who want to work for the district.”

Once again, Mansolillo sounded the alarm bells.

“Operating our schools without the necessary staff impacts the safety and learning environment for our students,” she said.

Polisena had kind words for school administrators.

“If there are any vacancies that are remaining unfilled, I would applaud the school department for engaging in responsible fiscal restraint,” he wrote. “Just because we have a difference of opinion, I can still say I know all five members to be good people and they would never do anything to jeopardize the education of Johnston’s students.”

Where’s the audit report?

The pending audit results are a matter of contention between town and school officials. While the School Committee has not officially received a copy of the auditing firm’s “preliminary report,” Mansolillo has received a copy through a third party.

Asked for an update on the auditing process earlier this week, Polisena contends it remains unfinished.

“The audit should be done soon,” Polisena wrote. “There shouldn't be any changes made because we’re dealing with raw numbers. Everything can be quantified. The numbers are what they are and should speak for itself. When the audit is released I’m hoping it serves as a baseline for the school department’s decisions in the future. We always anticipated this to be completed between summer and autumn.”

Mansolillo insists the mayor’s communication with the School Committee has been insufficient.

“As for the audit, can the mayor explain further?” Mansolillo asked. “It is my understanding that the preliminary audit has been completed since late July and there is no reason why this hasn’t been shared with the school committee and the administration if we are working collaboratively and in good faith. It has been shared with others, which is how I have obtained a copy. We need transparency from the mayor and his team on this matter. The school department has been cooperative and transparent throughout the process.”

The preliminary report Mansolillo tracked down was dated July 26.

“What I wanted to get on the record was the fact that when the mayor didn’t fully fund our budget, we had to reduce the budget by not filling many open positions,” Mansolillo said earlier this week. “Not having those positions filled puts our students at risk. It’s imperative we fill those positions, and fully fund the budget that we brought to the town in June. The safety of the students is the most important thing. We can’t rely on volunteers.”

Budget Blowback

The Johnston School Committee initially requested $65,466,300 from the town for this school year — a $5,032,084 difference year-over-year, or more than an 8 percent increase in expenses.

Ultimately, Polisena and Town Council allocated $2.15 million in additional 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,” according to the resolution approved by the School Committee.

District 5 Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti voted against Polisena’s proposed budget, which came roughly $3 million short of fully funding the school department’s request for the 2023-24 school year.

“This is part of the reason I opposed the budget,” Civetti said earlier this week. “There’s a lack of transparency. I had hoped in April (the administration) would hold workshops, and allow the public to attend the meetings. We never had any workshop meetings. We never heard from department heads, or heard them say what their requests were … I have to assume that (the school department) made the proper cuts so that they could live within their means.”

Civetti also voiced concerns that Polisena planned to use “Amazon money” for more than just debt service.

“There’s around 3.3 million of Amazon money that’s not being used for debt service or educational costs,” Civetti warned.

Mansolillo hopes the district can find a way to fully fund staff salaries.

“We didn’t ask for the money for fun,” Mansolillo said. “We asked for the money that it takes to operate a safe learning environment for the students.”


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