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Gist to Woonsocket Schools: We'll think about it

June 14, 2012

WOONSOCKET — The School Committee Wednesday offered the keys to the Woonsocket Education Department to the Rhode Island Department of Education, saying the city simply doesn’t have the money to comply with all the mandates heaped upon it by the state.
“You come in and take care of your unfunded mandates,” Committeeman Chris Roberts said. “You have created all the laws we have to comply with.”
The School Committee will send a letter to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist saying it can’t operate with available funds and still comply with the minimum Basic Education Plan.
“Our fiduciary responsibility is to both educate Woonsocket’s approximately six thousand youths while also operating with a balanced budget,” the letter says. “This simply cannot be done.”
Gist told reporters during an impromptu press briefing in Providence Thursday morning that RIDE would study the city’s request and determine whether the city meets the criteria for a state takeover.
The factors that must be examined involve the worth of the city’s taxable property, tax rates and how its tax dollars are allocated.
“It’s a pretty extreme step,” RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger told RI “But the state has gone that route before.”
The Woonsocket Education Department is facing a combined $10 million budget deficit for the last two fiscal years, and will likely incur another $7 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins in about two weeks without massive cuts or an infusion of new revenue.
Hopes for the latter were dashed when the General Assembly adjourned Wednesday without approving a 13 percent supplemental tax increase on city property, a tax that local officials argued was vital to begin closing the budget shortfall. The prospect of bankruptcy has already prompted Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly to place the city under the control of a Budget Commission, which had lobbied legislators to pass the “fifth quarter” tax, as the City Council and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine had earlier.
The failure of the supplemental tax has left school officials to propose a budget of roughly $62 million next year, a figure they know is $6 to $8 million short. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday night in Harris Hall.
The School Committee asked for state intervention under Section 16-1-10 of the Rhode Island General Laws, which ties state intervention in public schools to a community’s ability to raise revenue from property taxes.
This is what the law says:
“The school committee of any city or town in which the taxable property is not adequate, at the average rate of taxation for public school support throughout the state, to provide with the money that may be apportioned from the general treasury an amount sufficient to provide and maintain public schools of a high standard, may at a regular meeting held before the first day of July in any year request the department of elementary and secondary education to assume the supervision, control, and management of the public schools of the city or town for the ensuing year...”
The only caveat is that the city or town asking for intervention must appropriate at least thirty cents for every $100 worth of taxable property in the community toward education.
The law also appears to leave the discretion to intervene up to the commissioner of education, and even members of the School Committee who voted in favor of the takeover think she’ll ultimately decline.
“It’s easier for them to ignore us and say it’s a local problem,” says Roberts. “I think what they’re going to say is Woonsocket taxpayers aren’t doing enough to support education, which is the furthest thing from the truth.”
The WED has made precisely that case in a suit challenging the new formula for disbursing state aid to school districts. Known as the “fair-funding suit,” it’s been counterattacked by the state in Superior Court, with a decision on the state’s motion to dismiss pending before Judge Netti Vogel. The new formula, which was supposed to correct inequities in the one that existed previously, had also been challenged without success several years ago.
The new formula would gradually funnel more aid to the Woonsocket schools over a period of eight years, beginning with $3.2 million in 2013. If the formula were substantially speeded up, the takeover question would be moot, said Roberts.
“Instead we’re arguing about spending $30,000 for textbooks for 6,000 kids while they’re talking about buying iPads for every student in East Greenwich,” said Roberts. “It’s ridiculous.”
The cash bind has forced the WED into a position of choosing which laws it wants to break, those that mandate a host of educational programs, another requiring school districts to operate with a balanced budget, or yet others protecting collective bargaining agreements. For Roberts, the mass of conflicting regulations has begun to feel like a prison for Roberts, or what he calls “an ugly circle.”
However unlikely it is may be that Gist opts for a RIDE takeover of the WED, School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier insists the resolution is not a symbolic measure.
“This is serious,” she says. “We have to give up control because we feel it’s the best thing for our community right now. We just can’t comply with all these laws and still balance our budget. We’re trying really hard but we just can’t.”
Four members of the School Committee voted in favor of the resolution, including John Donlon and Eleanor Nadeau, but not everyone was on the same page.
Vimala Phongsavanh, the lone dissenter, said she thinks passing the resolution is a case of hoisting the white flag atop the mast of the WED, a sign that local official have thrown in the towel when it comes to solving problems on their own.
“I know we have dire needs,” she says. “I think we can continue to work with RIDE to provide those services children need and keep schools open.”
Even if RIDE wanted to take over the WED, it probably wouldn’t happen soon. In Central Falls, where the school department was taken over by the state, the takeover required the passage of enabling legislation in the General Assembly to lay the groundwork for a new organizational structure. The General Assembly just recessed and is not expected to reconvene until January 2013.
The Central Falls law abolished the locally elected School Committee and replaced it with a seven-member board of trustees chosen by the State Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.
School officials wouldn’t be talking takeover had the now-defunct proposal for a supplemental tax been supported by the House delegation from Woonsocket, which has been blamed for killing the initiative. The supplemental tax would not only have helped close the existing budget deficit, but the expected shortfall in next year’s budget as well, because the projected $6.6 million in new revenues it generated would have been built onto the existing tax base forever.
But it was precisely what the Budget Commission saw as a tonic for the city’s woes that state legislators saw as poison. Taxpayers, they argued, are already too tapped-out to pay more and local leaders should explore more aggressive cuts as a strategy of first resort for dealing with the financial crisis.
Since the failure of the supplemental tax law, the Budget Commission’s focus has shifted to exactly that. Chairman William Sequino Jr. said Wednesday that the coming austerity measures will impact retirees, city workers, and services.

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