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R.I. wants to quash lawsuit on funding

December 17, 2011

WOONSOCKET — The legal move by Woonsocket and Pawtucket to overturn the state's school funding formula may be headed for an early court showdown.
Gov. Chafee’s administration recently filed a motion in Superior Court seeking to have the Woonsocket and Pawtucket suit dismissed. Stephen Robinson, the education law attorney representing the communities, in turn responded with a countering petition.
Woonsocket School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier said Thursday she was aware an objection to the dismissal would be filed by Robinson and expressed hope that Superior Court ''not dismiss the case."
Woonsocket has recently been found to have overspent its past budget by roughly $2 million and is looking at ways to reduce its current budget to cover the red ink either through cuts or a five-year deficit reduction plan.
The School Department has already cut its former all-day kindergarten program to a half-day program, eliminated many of its teacher assistant posts, reduced its high school daily schedule to six periods in order to eliminate 10 teaching posts and also made a number of other staffing reductions in the effort to save money.
The school department has also appealed a court decision forcing it to reduce its budget to the revenue figures set by a recent round of state school aid cuts.
The legal bids may be the district's only way to maintain existing school programs without another round of severe budget cutting, according to Forcier.
"It's not that we're asking for more than we deserve," she said Thursday. "We are asking why our students should be doing without, we are asking why they aren't being treated more fairly.”
The fair funding lawsuit seeks to address the formula put in place by the state last year that still does not address the significant differences in need between urban districts and the state's more affluent suburban communities, according to Forcier.
In the past three to four years, the state has reduced its support to Woonsocket by $4 million even while working on the plan to create a new funding formula that it maintains does address the greater needs of the urban districts.
But while Woonsocket will gain $800,000 a year in new state support under that plan beginning next year, Forcier said it will take five years for the city to regain the state school aid revenue that has already been cut.
The move by the city last year to seek a court decision reducing the school budget resulted in part from the discovery that the school budget was based on less state aid that it expected to receive that year. The school department cut its prior budget to $62 million based on revenue projections, but then ended up with a lower approved appropriation of just over $60 million when the city's case was decided.
The state could have addressed some of the contested budget funding with a more adequate state aid formula, according to Forcier. While the new formula does address an urban student's greater need, it still limits that assistance to a level of support that does not cover all of special needs for which a student might be entitled to receive assistance, according to Forcier.
The state may provide funding for a need such as English as a Second Language but not any of the other needs included in the student’s Individual Education Plan, according to Forcier.
"Other systems give weight to each need a student has, " she said.
The response to the state's motion to dismiss concludes that, despite a state Supreme Court decision in 1995 supporting the late Gov. Bruce Sundlun's contention that school districts in Rhode Island were able to meet Basic Education Plan standards with the funding system in place at the time, times have changed and requirements of the state's new Basic Education Plan are not so easily met.
The state is now also taking an active role in intervening in school management if schools do not meet state standards and can punitively label such a school as a "failure.'' The General Assembly's role in determining the adequacy of school funding may also have changed due to the voters’ repeal of its traditional constitutional powers, according to filing.
"These changes provide a sufficient basis for this Court to permit this action to proceed through discovery and trial so that it can review a new record that may permit a different result than the context-specific one reached by the Rhode Island Supreme Court when it decided Sundlun in 1995," Robinson wrote.
Forcier said Robinson is expected to meet with School Superintendent Giovana Donoyan next week to provide her with an update on the status of the Woonsocket and Pawtucket court filing.

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