City officials hail schools for agreeing to fill $1.6 million gap

PAWTUCKET – In a move veteran city leaders were calling “unprecedented” in Pawtucket, the School Committee last week agreed to address a majority of the city’s $2.6 million budget gap.

Councilor Terry Mercer, head of the City Council’s finance subcommittee, called the agreement an “exceptional outcome,” thanking the School Committee and Chairman Jay Charbonneau for working with the city to avoid a potential large-scale supplemental tax increase for residents.

Council President David Moran said there have often been cases where the schools have sought more money from the city, which certainly makes sense, but this is the first time he can remember where the reverse has happened.

The way it will work, said Mercer, is that the schools will pay down $1.6 million in expected school construction bond debt the city is on the hook for in the current fiscal year.

“I greatly thank each of the members, specifically Chairman Charbonneau,” said Mercer, for working within their parameters to help the city. School officials understood that their projected surplus of $2 million was largely a product of being in a distance learning situation for much of this fiscal year, he said, and that the city’s deficit was directly impacted by a lack of revenue related to COVID-19 and beyond officials’ control. He called this move “really good news” for the city and its taxpayers.

The remaining $1 million budget hole is much more palatable to deal with, said Mercer, and city officials can now get down to the business of addressing it.

Councilor Mark Wildenhain also thanked the school board at the Feb. 10 council meeting, saying it was nice to see the collaborative effort between the city and schools continue with the reverse aid. Everyone’s hurting, he said, so this agreement was very important. As Charbonneau noted when the School Committee made its decision on Feb. 9 to help the city, he said, no education dollars will be taken away from schools.

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Former school board member and current Councilor Michael Araujo also thanked the School Committee, saying the collaboration was much appreciated.

Schools returning money to cities is a rare occurrence in Rhode Island, where maintenance of effort laws require communities to maintain the prior year’s funding levels. This agreement will not impact maintenance of effort in Pawtucket.

Moran said Charbonneau “worked feverishly” to find a solution that was responsive to the city’s needs. He recalled years past where the situation was reversed and the schools were seeking more money than they were allotted, often warning of legal action. This could be the first time that the School Department is helping the city, he said, “not in a negative sense,” but it shows that times change and common sense needs to prevail.

“I thank them very much for that,” he said.