WOONSOCKET – Amid a looming cash crunch, city officials are once again floating the idea of a state takeover of city schools as a way through the fiscal morass.
But Dave Abbott, the deputy commissioner of education, all but closed the door on a Central Falls-style takeover of the Woonsocket Education Department.
In an interview, Abbott gauged the chances of the Rhode Island Department of Education taking of the WED as “very slim.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than the School Committee saying, ‘Take us over,’” said Abbott. “You’d have to create a state law to do it. There is no current mechanism to transfer local control to the state.”
At its current rate of spending, the city is on track to run out of cash by June 15, when payable accounts, including personnel, outstrip receivables by some $1.5 million. Unless the city somehow generates more revenue, that figure is projected to grow to $12.4 million by July 15, according to the latest figures released by the state-appointed Budget Commission.
The commission has adopted a five-year plan to resolve the problem, but major components, including a $2.5 million supplemental tax, remain in limbo. Among other things, the city was planning on borrowing short term bank notes in anticipation of the receipt of taxes to smooth its way past the cash bottleneck, but without the supplemental tax, the city can’t borrow anything, according to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, a member of the commission.
Despite the legislature’s passage of a new funding formula for education in 2012, many say the root cause of the city’s economic woes continues to be the state’s failure to reimburse its educational costs fairly. Woonsocket and Pawtucket are both plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state’s education funding formula.
A Superior Court judge already declared that the suit is without merit and dismissed it, but the plaintiffs have appealed to the state Supreme Court. A decision could come before the high court disbands for summer.
“For financial reasons, I think it would be beneficial for the state to take over the school system for a year or two until we get our footing,” says Fontaine. “More importantly, I think the state should fully fund the education formula.”
School Committeewoman Anita McGuire Forcier agrees. She says the existing formula would add about $8 million to the education department’s bottom line during the next decade, but it doesn’t make up for prior cuts that took place before the formula was approved.
“In reality they’re taking 10 years to give us an additional $4 million,” she says. “It doesn’t even keep up with what you’d expect in standard cost of living increases.”
The School Committee passed a resolution around this time last year formally asking RIDE to take over city schools. It was addressed to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who later announced that she had taken the request under advisement.
Abbott’s comments are RIDE’s most elaborate response ever to the request, which is often likened to the state’s takeover of Central Falls’ education department in the 1990s.
The latter was a carefully crafted transition that required a number of pieces of supportive legislation, adopted by the General Assembly, in order to take place, according to Abbott.
While Woonsocket has focused on gaining enabling legislation to pass supplemental tax bills, restructuring its pension system and making the school calendar more malleable to cut costs, local officials have never pressed for bills to sever the education department from the rest of the city. Even if it had, Abbott says, it’s unlikely, in the current fiscal climate, that state lawmakers would embrace the financial responsibility of bankrolling another local school district.
There is one potential pathway that could lead to a de facto takeover of Woonsocket schools, but it’s tied to student achievement. If students perform poorly enough in a sufficient number of schools, existing law allows RIDE to engage in “progressive control” of the local district’s personnel, programs and budgets, according to Abbott.
Chances of that happening don’t appear particularly likely, either.
“Woonsocket, for all its troubles, doesn’t have a lot of schools that are continuously low-performing,” he says. “So probably not.”
Though Woonsocket may long for the financial relief of a state takeover, the academic benefits might be harder to discern. After operating as an arm of the state for years, many of the leading indicators of academic performance in Central Falls schools, particularly at the secondary level, are very similar to those of Woonsocket.
The record of academic proficiency in math, reading and science for 11th graders in both cities, for example, is identical, according to statistics available on RIDE’s web site. The most recent data indicates that 30 percent of the tested group is proficient in math, 70 percent in reading, and 32 percent in science for both cities.
Central Falls has slightly fewer students at the high school level who are considered chronically absent, 36 percent compared to Woonsocket’s 30 percent; and a four-year graduation rate slightly better, at 70.3 percent compared to Woonsocket’s 63 percent. The state also says the per-pupil cost of an education in Central Falls is $20,265 a year, among the highest, compared to Woonsocket’s mid-range price tag of $13,485.
But Abbott defends the state’s intervention in Central Falls, saying that positive changes in “school culture” have become evident in the lower grades, citing such indicators as improved teacher attendance and decreasing numbers of children who are chronically absent. The fact that these trends are emerging among younger children suggests that “we are closing the achievement gap” in Central Falls public schools, he says.