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Officials to meet over school funding formula

November 29, 2010

WOONSOCKET — A bevy of city officials and state legislators will gather in the middle school cafeteria tomorrow as they try to cook up a fresh recipe for the fair funding of education.
After all, says Schools Supt. Robert Gerardi, the first batch served up by the General Assembly isn't going down too easy.
After exploring the math of the new fair funding formula slated to take effect in about seven months, Gerardi says Woonsocket would receive about $700,000 more in state aid. But he says the formula still does too little to compensate cities like Woonsocket and Pawtucket for handling an inordinately large share of students for whom English is a second language.
“The current formula is a good one but it's not the best,” said Gerardi.
State representatives and senators from the area have been invited to discuss legislative strategies for correcting the problem during a meeting in the cafeteria of the Woonsocket Middle School at Hamlet at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The gathering is hosted by the School Committee, which has also invited members of the City Council and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. The session is open to the public and will get under way with an hours' worth of free-form discussion.
Until recently, Rhode Island was the only state in the nation without a fair funding formula for education. After enduring years of criticism from political leaders and educators, the General Assembly passed a formula during the last session, but some school districts says it doesn't go far enough to guarantee that state aid will be distributed equitably among urban and suburban school districts.
Gerardi said that among those particularly shortchanged are the mid-sized urban districts like Woonsocket and Pawtucket. Even the largest school districts, like Providence, will fare better because they can pull in more state aid under the new formula simply because of their size, said Gerardi.
In addition to fair funding, Gerardi said he expects other hot topics of the legislative workshop to be unfunded mandates and two years' worth of cutbacks in state aid which have sent Woonsocket and other school districts reeling.
Among the most controversial mandates on the table, said Gerardi, is a state law that prompted the city to bring a lawsuit against the education department for operating without a balanced budget. Superior Court Judge Bennett R. Gallo recently affirmed the city's position, ordering the education department to live within its $59.7 million budget and create a corrective action plan for reaching that target.
But Gerardi said the law is inequitable because it contravenes another statute which should have shifted the burden for balancing the budget to the municipal side of government.
Gerardi said school officials contend the City Council unilaterally trimmed the education department's budget mid-year after initially approving a figure that was $1.5 million larger. On the contrary, city officials argued the “cut” was meaningless because the budget they approved at the beginning of the fiscal year was based on an inaccurate estimate reached before the actual figures for state aid were confirmed by the legislature.
The School Committee has already voted to appeal Bennett's decision to the state Supreme Court, though it's too soon to know whether the high court would consider hearing the case.
It might all seem like a rather abstract fight at the moment, but city officials say there is too much at stake to risk another deficit in the education department. The city has reached a tenuous agreement with the state Department of Revenue to float a $12 million bond designed to wipe out years' worth of combined municipal and school deficits, a debt that has thrust the city's bond rating into junk status.
It's unclear whether that agreement will hold together if the city ends the fiscal year awash in yet another sea of red ink. If the deal falters, city officials say there is a risk that the state will take over the city's finances and do whatever it needs to in order to balance budgets quickly, a scenario that would likely call for a mixed bag of service cuts and tax hikes that local officials would no longer have control over.

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