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Officials spar over future of ed panel

October 31, 2012

WOONSOCKET – The practice of voting for members of the School Committee will soon come to an end if voters approve a referendum question at the polls on Tuesday to make the panel’s members appointive.
Question 8 on the ballot would give the mayor the power to select members of committee subject to ratification of the City Council. That would make Woonsocket only the second city in the state where school committee members are appointed, after Providence.
The deeply divisive question was spawned by a fiscal meltdown in the Woonsocket Education Department that unfolded around the beginning of 2011. Many in city government say the school committee’s failure to police the WED’s finances is now the chief reason the city is facing a $15 million deficit and a possible bankruptcy by the end of the fiscal year.
“It wasn’t just that they were dealing with flawed information but that the school committee didn’t have anyone with sufficient knowledge or expertise to recognize the severity of the problem,” says City Council President John Ward, a former chairman of the school committee and the finance director in the town of Lincoln. “I’m not just talking about financial expertise, I’m talking basic management.”
The School Committee is in charge of a $70 million budget, but during the period in question the panel failed to recognize the danger of leaving the accounting supervisor’s position vacant as a cost-saving move. “I think at one meeting I said myself it was a bad idea because that position is critical to providing good information to the business manager,” according to Ward. “The business manager as it turns out didn’t have the experience to do both jobs.
“Not only couldn’t the school committee deal with analyzing the financials, they didn’t understand the most basic principles needed to manage a $60 or $70 million operation,” says Ward.
Despite the indictment, Ward says stripping voters of their power to elect members of the School Committee is such a dramatic move that even he is of two minds about it.
He says he isn’t sure yet whether he will vote in favor of it, but the problems within the WED have had such a profound effect on the city, and its residents, that he thinks the question deserves to be in front of the voters so they can make up their own minds.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine is less equivocal about Question 8. He’s all for it.
He argues that Question 8 is largely about accountability. Fontaine says it is a noble and worthy thing that members of the school committee place their highest decision-making priorities on providing schoolchildren with the best education that money can buy, but they can’t simply put on blinders when it comes to how much education costs.
“There has to be some accountability here for finances,” says the mayor. “It would be in everybody’s interest to appoint people who are focused not only on education, but finances.”
By approving Question 8, Fontaine says city residents could topple in one fell swoop a massive “wall” of bureaucracy that separates the city and school sides of government. It’s a schism that sets up an adversarial dynamic between the two sides and inhibits open lines of communication, he says.
Because the school committee has no power to tax and raise the revenue it needs to pay for education, it leaves the job of justifying the costs to city officials. Then, when school officials overspend their budgets and taxing authorities are reluctant to use their power, there is a law known as the Caruolo Act which allows the School Committee to file suit against the city to get more money.
To Fontaine, this is government at its most absurd.
“How does it benefit anybody but the lawyers when they have a city basically suing itself to get money that isn’t there in the first place?” he says.
There is no time like the present to restructure government so that city and school officials are all playing for the same team, says the mayor.
It’s hardly surprising to find some of the fiercest opponents of appointive school officials sitting on the School Committee, but they make some persuasive and impassioned arguments for protecting the status quo.
School Committeeman John Donlon, for one, says school committees were created as independently elected bodies precisely to insulate their focus on education from the intrusive political interests of city officials. If school officials had to worry about raising revenue, chances are they’d put far less emphasis on making choices that are in the best educational interests of children.
Approving Question 8 merely turns the WED into an arm of City Hall, reducing the school committee into a rubberstamp for the mayor, whoever he or she may be.
“It gives too much authority to the mayor’s office,” says Donlon. “There’ll be no checks and balances. He’ll appoint the school committee and they’ll do whatever he says.”
Echoing Ward, School Committee Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavong says voters deserve to have a say on the issue, but unlike him her position on appointive school committees is one of unmixed opposition.
For one thing, Phongsavong rejects the premise that school committee members lack the expertise to police the WED or that they are unconcerned with the fiscal challenges facing the city. She also says municipal officials are scapegoating their school-centered counterparts as the sole cause of the fiscal crisis that has befallen the city.
The root cause is not that the WED bobbled the books or that the school committee didn’t notice, but that the state fails to recognize the true costs of educating a student body packed with special needs students and other challenges.
Phongsavong says approval of Question 8 is exactly the wrong thing for the city to do to break free from its financial woes. It should be investing in sound educational programs that prepare youngsters to become the solid citizens of the future. Letting City Hall determine who makes decisions for education simply dilutes the electorate’s power to have a say in the process.
“Excellence in education should be the biggest priority of the school committee, investing in education,” she says. “It’s one of the most important things we can do, not just as a city, but as a country. Without that foundation we’re not going to be successful. These are the children who are going to be taking care of us someday.”
Phongsavong says strong schools require “involved communities and real democracy.” Contradicting Fontaine, Phongsavong says there is no better way to make sure school officials stay accountable than to have people vote for them.
“Quality comes from accountability – if the people can't vote out people who make decisions that aren't in Woonsocket's interest, there's no way to hold them accountable,” she says. “Elections encourage school committee members to listen to community members and address their concerns.”
Another problem with the proposal is the unpredictable nature of politics, she says. Perhaps the current slate of officials at City Hall may not seem particularly hostile to education, but the future could be different.
The proposal for an appointive school committee has actually been around for more than two years. The Charter Review Commission first came up with it in 2010. But the City Council declined the opportunity to put it on the ballot of a municipal election last year, according to Ward.
Since then, the continued erosion of the WED’s finances have prompted the City Council to take a second look.

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