School board upset over failed application

School board upset over failed application

PAWTUCKET – School Committee members are expressing great frustration with Supt. Cheryl McWilliams after her application to the state to take part in its WorkShare program was denied.

Thirty-six non-teaching school staff had signed up to take part in the cost-saving program after city officials asked the district to take part in it. City officials cited extensive question marks over funding in the next year or two.

During a special meeting last Thursday, June 25, school board members described the failed application as an embarrassment that didn’t have to happen. Despite McWilliams and Chairman Jay Charbonneau signing a memorandum of understanding with school staffers on June 11, a document describing imminent layoffs, McWilliams then filled out a one-page application the next day stating that the district wasn’t anticipating layoffs.

Subsequently notified of the denial on June 15, McWilliams then declined to fix the application to state that layoffs are imminent, and Charbonneau decided against stepping in for a replacement signature. Explaining himself during last week’s meeting, Charbonneau said he did not feel comfortable stating that the district was laying off employees when it’s running a $2.6 million surplus for the fiscal year ending this week. If he’s running a business, said Charbonneau, there’s no way he’s contemplating layoffs when there’s a $2.6 million surplus.

The loss to the city in once-potential savings is between $150,000 and $200,000. The City Council on Monday, at Councilor Mark Wildenhain’s request, sent a letter to the School Committee asking what steps

WorkShare, a program offered by the Unemployment Insurance Division in the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, allows qualified employers to reduce the hours of work for employees rather than lay them off completely during a time of economic hardship.

Asked about the apparent contradiction between the memorandum and application this week, and why she signed the memorandum stating there were anticipated layoffs, McWilliams responded that the WorkShare program was presented to the School Department “as a program that we needed to offer our employees in collaboration with the city.”

Chief of Staff Dylan Zelazo said this week that the state’s WorkShare program provides communities with a tool to offset costs to taxpayers. The city opted in, which will save more than $500,000, he said, employees helping meet the obligation to save dollars wherever possible.

“The city encouraged the Pawtucket School Department to participate in the program as well,” he said. “Public revenues have taken a dramatic hit in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly state revenues to municipalities and school districts. State funding will continue to be depressed over the coming months as the state reopens gradually to keep everyone safe. School departments are largely dependent on state aid in order to fund their operations. With state revenues to fund the budget in doubt, there is likely to be significant cuts across state spending in order to adjust to the current reality.”

Zelazo said officials are confused as to why McWilliams and the School Committee “have chosen not to participate as well as the inconsistencies with the filings.”

School officials wrote down “N/A” under a question on anticipated layoffs.

School board members last week, particularly Kim Grant, similarly expressed frustration with leadership, questioning why McWilliams didn’t make changes after a June 16 phone call with the state. She told them that the word “imminent” came up several times related to layoffs, which simply isn’t the case.

McWilliams said it’s now a matter of taking the money from the original bucket of the school budget to pay the staffers.

But Grant questioned why McWilliams didn’t realize that there was flexibility on the timing of the program, saying that officials didn’t have to rush the application through as they did.

Grant also noted that many staffers likely made plans around their days off over the coming 12 weeks, and will now face the inconvenience of having to change them.

Responding to Grant’s criticisms of a rushed special meeting, Charbonneau pledged to do better in the future, taking responsibility for the hurried nature of the application.

School board members also wanted to know why it took a full week to announce that the district didn’t qualify for the program.

School attorney Jon Anderson placed the blame for the situation squarely on the shoulders of McWilliams, saying she didn’t consult with him on filling out the application after working with him on the memorandum. After July 1, said Anderson, the program becomes much less attractive to employees from a financial incentive point of view. He said McWilliams didn’t understand the law but still filled out the application and met with the state without consulting him for legal advice.

Grant noted that while Anderson is there to consult with McWilliams, it is ultimately the superintendent who is hired as the person the committee trusts to make final decisions. She questioned the decision to keep going back to McWilliams to convince her to fix the application if McWilliams didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

With all the debate back and forth about the failed application, said Charbonneau, it’s still worth noting that this isn’t an enormous amount of money in the grand scheme of the budget. The savings essentially would have paid off the district’s school lunch debt, he said.

Comments

This is government incompetence at its worst. The superintendent signed forms saying completely opposite things. She should resign immediately. We pay a lot of money for apparently very lax work.

As a tax payer and resident with kids in the school system I am furious to hear this lack of intelligence from those responsible for my kids education. Especially that the attitude of the committee chairman that $150k isn't a lot of money. News flash: that's a lot of money and it should be going to the kids not being flushed down the toilet.

I hope the city council holds their feet to the fire and doesn't allow this to stand. This is our money and the school department should respect that.

Let me get this straight. Those mentioned in this article, aside from Charbonneau and Dr. McWilliams, like Wildenhain, Zelazo and particularly Grant along with that waste of money Anderson - are upset because the Superintendent didn't lie on the application? We're running a surplus and layoffs aren't imminent. Imminent is the keyword. She filled the application out appropriately.

I hope we can all remember in November that Kimberly Grant thinks it's okay to lie on applications to save a few bucks. Interesting theory from a School Committee member and candidate. I guess it's okay for kids to cheat on tests, also, no? As long as it's for the greater good.

It probably doesn't matter, but she just lost my vote.

I would just like to set the record straight for MR. Clark. I Agreed that The Superintendent should Not sign any forms that she feels uncomfortable with. I would never ask anyone to sign anything they did not feel right about.
This article is a little confusing but please be reassured I asked a lot of questions at the meeting prior to this one because I was concerned. So the voters do not need to question my ethics at all.

And I would similarly like to clarify that the article is a lot less confusing than the actual meeting.