Schools wrestle with declining enrollment, budget

Mayor wants pause before advancing plan to revamp Toll Gate, Pilgrim high schools

Posted 4/29/21

By ARDEN BASTIA Declining student enrollment is a growing concern for the School Committee as they discuss the district's budget and the high school renovation plans. Superintendent Philip Thornton's $185.8 million spending package calls for level city

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Schools wrestle with declining enrollment, budget

Mayor wants pause before advancing plan to revamp Toll Gate, Pilgrim high schools


Declining student enrollment is a growing concern for the School Committee as they discuss the district’s budget and the high school renovation plans.

Superintendent Philip Thornton’s $185.8 million spending package calls for level city and state funding of schools, plus use of an additional $11.7 million in federal funds for the 2022 fiscal year starting this July 1. 

Unlike prior budgets where the city did not initially fully fund the committee's request, this budget does not call for the elimination or reduction in programs. That was the case in 2019, when the mayor's budget cut $4 million from the committee request, which in turn caused schools to make cuts to student programs, including athletics.

During the last School Committee meeting on April 20, Thornton said his budget aligns with staffing and enrollment. Because of the decline in students, the School Department is looking to make corresponding cuts in staffing. The budget recommends the elimination of 35 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions. 

The budget illustrated the harsh reality of enrollment decline, yet a relatively consistent level of staffing. In FY16, the district had an enrollment of 9,000 students and 936 teachers. Enrollment dropped in the following years to 7,900, while staffing 887 teachers. The report finds the current ratio of professional staff to students at one teacher to 8.9 students, as compared to the state average of one to 12.3.

At its April 20 meeting, Judy Cobden, chairperson of the School Committee, and Nathan Cornell, vice-chair, proposed an amendment to the budget, asking for additional funds from the city. 

The amendment added $1 million to the budget, which would allocate $500,000 for personnel and $500,000 for student programming. 

“There’s a population decline, if we have three classes and we can’t fill one, it has to close...No one is here to happily fire teachers, but we want what’s best for our district,” said Cobden. “The cuts are going to come from sports and things that will hurt children, and we can’t do that. They deserve a good education.”

Superintendent Thornton did not support the additional funding. Initially, the committee voted 3-2 against the superintendent’s budget plus an additional $1 million, however later voted 3-2 in favor of the Superintendent’s budget plus an additional $500,000. 

The additional $500,000 would not be tied to a specific use, but would be put towards the development of current student programs and to research additional ones. 

Robert Baxter, finance director, will now again reevaluate the budget, and bring the additional funds request to the city. 

In an interview on Tuesday, Council President Steve McAllister said he’s “always open to looking at alternatives, but we’re going to have to see. We have a lot of residents who don’t have kids in the school system, so we have to do what’s best. If this new school budget causes a tax increase, it will be difficult to support.”

Mayor doesn’t favor increase

Mayor Frank Picozzi said Tuesday his goal is to present the City Council with a no tax increase budget. He said the superintendent’s budget does not eliminate any programs and that it meets the “level of maintenance” required of the city. He does not favor the additional $500,000.

However, for Cobden, the budget increase is needed, regardless of a tax increase.

“We need to do things that will attract people to our district. It’s a game now, and we have to get involved,” said Cobden. “Maybe we can get a little bit of something and put it towards programs, because that’s what I’d like to see the money used for.”

McAllister believes that “in order to stop enrollment from dropping, we need top notch schools, with top notch technology, curriculum, and buildings.”

One possible way to achieve such a goal is through the high school renovations projects, which the School Committee resumed discussion of at Tuesday’s meeting.

When educational planner Frank Locker and architect Ed Bourget presented the plans to the School Committee at an under-attended community forum several weeks ago, no vote was taken. 

During the meeting, the committee was concerned about building two new schools when the district is facing a serious enrollment decline. 

“Our work was based on enrollment documentation that led up to the end of 2019,” said Locker during the meeting. “It’s based on enrollment projections at that time, which is the standard way of doing these projects. There are many reasons to carry on with the two school plans we have now.”

Locker explained that previous workshops and presentations included a single school option to replace Pilgrim and Toll Gate, but “the Warwick stakeholders voiced disfavor for that plan.”

“If enrollment is significantly different, then maybe it’s cause for reconsideration, or at least a deep breath to check on things,” said Locker. “I wouldn’t conclude that the recommendations we made are inappropriate even as enrollment drops.”

Enrollment impact of high schools

The “accountable way to do it,” said Locker, is to evaluate the ten-year enrollment projections. If enrollment continues to decline, it’ll certainly impact the square footage and size of the new schools. 

Locker did say the “quote on quote average high school varies by part of the country and it varies on the urban to rural transition. In New England, the current size of your buildings the high north. Many high schools have less than 1,000 kids.”

When Locker first analyzed Warwick high schools in 2019, the enrollment projections for 2030 from the New England School Development Council (NESDC) estimated 2,416 high school students in the city. The current NESDC data projections, said Anthony Ferrucci, chair of the building committee and former finance director, are just under 2,000 high school students by 2030. 

The discrepancy in student enrollment, a 400 to 500 student drop, was a point of contention for the School Committee. The committee unanimously agreed to table the high school renovation discussion, once again, for a future meeting. 

“My team and I need a chance to huddle up, come up with additional proposals, and understand what’s best operationally for the district to help increase enrollment,” Baxter said, who originally proposed to table the matter. 

“We need to do our due diligence. I don’t disagree with anything that’s going on, I’m just concerned about the population decline,” said Cobden. 

Given enrollment projections, Mayor Picozzi said Tuesday, “we need to catch our breath and see those numbers.”

Picozzi is also taking into consideration timing, as the School Committee aims to have a plan in place for high schools in order to put funding on the November 2022 ballot.

“We don’t lose anything by waiting a couple of months,” Picozzi said. The mayor didn’t volunteer a preference between major revisions to Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools as the School Committee has proposed, simply upgrading one school or building an all-new high school.

“I just don’t want to end up with two white elephants costing $400 million,” he said.

McAllister voiced his concerns about the enrollment drop. “I do think we need to be concerned about enrollment. A 10 percent decline over the past four years? That’s a big loss.”

He remains “hopeful” that the numbers will return, perhaps as parents become more comfortable sending their children back to school. However, he did acknowledge that a decision made today about the high schools will be “a generational decision.”

“What we do today will be there for the next 30 years,” he said.

What McAllister is particularly concerned with is the cost of the schools. In the original presentation of the renovation plans, Locker said the Rhode Island Department of Education would cover between 35 and 50 percent of the cost.

“If we could get 50 percent paid by the state, we really need to consider that. But now I’m hearing it’s going to be lower than that,” said McAllister. “There’s no easy decision or no easy way of doing this, but the discussion needs to continue.”

With reports from John Howell

schools, enrollment


1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here

Warwick should build 1 new high school with all the bells and whistles. It makes no sense to renovate the two old schools. Why can East Providence do it, but Warwick can't????

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