2010-03-04 / News

Jamestown could lose half its state school aid

By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown’s legislative representatives declined to discuss the details of a proposed school aid formula during a March 1 meeting with the Town Council and School Committee.

News of the formula, which could cost Jamestown more than half of its school aid, appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of the Providence Journal. The proposal will be formally unveiled today by R.I. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Last Monday’s meeting with Senate President Teresa Paiva- Weed and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero was intended, said Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, “to get a sense of the legislative actions that may affect our budget and education aid.”

One of those actions is the likely elimination of motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements to the towns. Paiva-Weed said the unexpected deferral of the third reimbursement during this fiscal year has been resolved with its recent restoration.

However, the final reimbursement for this fiscal year will almost certainly be delayed, Paiva-Weed said, because of unexpectedly sharp declines in all the principal sources of tax revenue for the state.

In a Feb. 19 letter to Jamestown Schools Superintendent Marcia Lukon, Keiser said it’s possible that the fourth reimbursement will be withheld altogether – and that this would result in a loss of $57,500 in town support for the school budget.

The school aid formula drew much more attention during the meeting. Rhode Island is the only state without a school aid funding formula, and the Gist proposal signals a strong possibility that the state is poised to adopt one.

However, the General Assembly would have the final say on the language of a formula – whether it’s the proposal from the R.I. Dept. of Education or an amended version offered by a legislator.

“We don’t know what the final bill will be,” Ruggiero said.

Paiva-Weed noted that “a member of the House leaked it to the Providence Journal without permission,” adding that “we need to give the commissioner an opportunity to do her presentation.

“We will pass along your questions,” she continued, “but we don’t want to publicly defend, or not defend, the proposal. It would be premature, and it doesn’t seem fair.”

According to the Providence Journal analysis, Jamestown would lose $205,291 of its $425,041 in annual school aid – or, 51.7% of the total. Under the proposal, towns that lose state aid would not be hit with their cuts all at once; rather, the reductions would be phased in over 10 years.

Although Paiva-Weed and Ruggiero wouldn’t discuss the details of the formula, which is based on factors such as school enrollment and local taxing potential, Paiva- Weed said that Jamestown would lose $21,000 in its first year – an amount that falls in line with the reported 10-year phase-in.

School Committee member B.J. Whitehouse expressed dismay that the formula fails to reward towns and school committees that demonstrate financial restraint. For example, the state property tax cap prohibits towns from increasing their tax collections by more than 4.5% over the total for the previous year.

Besides staying well below the cap, Jamestown schools are asking for less property tax support during the next fiscal year, which demonstrates that “Jamestown has done its fiscal work,” Whitehouse said, adding that “we will still be hammered” because of the state’s severe financial problems.

School Committee Chair Cathy Kaiser pointed out that the formula doesn’t provide any recognition of school departments that are spending generously in support of students with special needs.

There’s a concern that factoring those expenditures into the formula might lead some school districts to define “special needs” more liberally than others. Nevertheless, Kaiser believes that there should be an incentive for towns to identify students with those needs – and that the formula should account for the costs to assist them.

Kaiser also said that “more than 10% of our students are from military families,” adding that “we love the diversity that military families bring to the island.”

However, she also noted that – beyond the expenditures for any special needs children from military families – “a much larger issue is that military families sending their kids to high school costs us [an ad- ditional] $10,000 per student.”

Observing that some school districts facing fiscal distress are eliminating athletic programs, or asking parents to pay for those programs, Kaiser said, “We would like to do what Massachusetts school districts do, which is charge an activities fee.”

Paiva-Weed replied that urban areas can’t necessarily deploy a “pay to play” approach. But, she said, if Jamestown wants to do that, “send us a resolution to that effect and we will try to include [‘pay to play’ language] in the final bill.”

During the entirety of the hourlong meeting, a symbolic message was delivered to the legislators by way of plastic handcuffs dangling from the wrists of several School Committee members. Currently, the only public employee unions required to accept binding arbitration if collective bargaining reaches an impasse are the police and fire unions – but there are efforts to bring teachers into that scenario.

Paiva-Weed has previously supported legislation that would require binding arbitration to resolve disputes in negotiations with teachers’ unions, so the handcuffs represented the Jamestown School Committee position that binding arbitration would tie the hands of the school district.

Council President Michael Schnack voiced his support for the committee, saying, “There is no negotiating when you have binding arbitration. It’s a bad idea.”

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