2011-03-10 / News

Major local education issues awaiting answers

By Phil Zahodiakin

Questions about state aid for schools cannot be answered until Gov. Lincoln Chafee – along with his nominee for the Board of Regents – unveil their policy positions, the island’s state representatives this week told a joint meeting of the Jamestown Town Council and School Committee.

During the March 7 workshop, state Sen. M. Theresa Paiva Weed and state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero provided updates on a wide range of school-related issues. They observed that it is impossible to predict how the governor will answer some key questions at this early stage of his administration.

One of the questions involves the previous use of federal stimulus money for school aid. During the two years the money has been available, the state has directed $100 million a year in stimulus money to school districts. However, now that the money is disappearing, “Can the state fill that hole and still fund the [school-aid] formula?” asked Jamestown Schools Superintendent Marcia Lukon.

Although Paiva Weed didn’t say how the state might bridge the gap, she reminded the School Committee that there is still about $18,000 in stimulus money available to Jamestown, if the town applied for it. “A lot of communities didn’t understand that they had to apply for that money from the Department of Education,” the senator said.

Alluding to a potential source of funding to bridge the gap, Councilor Bill Murphy took issue with any suggestion by the governor that his proposal to broaden the sales tax while simultaneously reducing it from 7 percent to 6 percent “is not a tax increase because he’s looking to raise an additional $60 million.”

Paiva Weed replied that “state revenues are sourced primarily from sales taxes and income taxes, and sales taxes are down substantially because of the $70 to $80 million [in taxes] we lose on Internet sales. [Recouping those revenues] is the purpose of the Main Street Fairness Act. If that bill is not enacted, we will have to keep looking for ways to backfill salestax revenue.”

The Main Street Fairness Act was introduced into Congress last July and would force online retailers to collect sales tax on all online purchases.

Regarding proposals to require binding arbitration to resolve failed negotiations with teachers’ unions, Paiva-Weed said she was unaware of any such legislation having been introduced so far this year, adding, “It’s not a front-burner issue” for the General Assembly.

Besides funding, the issue of greatest significance for the Jamestown School Committee members was the tenure of state Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, followed by the pending vote on the governor’s nominee to chair the Board of Regents, George Caruolo. Paiva Weed remarked that School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser “asked me to vote against [Caruolo],” adding, “But I endorse the nomination.”

Paiva Weed reflected that opposition to the nomination mounted after Caruolo was quoted in a Providence Journal interview saying his experience with sending four children to Rhode Island schools led him to conclude that “our public schools aren’t that bad.”

“The only thing he could have said that might have satisfied everyone,” Paiva Weed continued, “would have been, ‘Our schools are horrible.’ But I don’t want the chairman of our Board of Regents saying something like that. I will not trash our public schools. I believe that Gov. Chafee supports reform, and I am unequivocal in my support for [education reforms specified by] the ‘Race to the Top’.”

Kaiser said she wanted to state for the record that “our concerns pre-date the nomination [of Caruolo]. Our concerns stem from our fear that stronger union ties [in the Chafee administration] will result in losing Commissioner Gist.”

Ruggiero replied that she is a “big supporter of Commissioner Gist because she has been a real change agent,” but Paiva Weed told Kaiser that she had to be “realistic” in view of the fact that “[Gist’s] husband is still in Washington, D.C., and she is working on her doctorate. Now, do I think she’ll leave before her job is finished? No.”

Lukon interjected that “the real issue is not whether our schools are good or not, but whether they are preparing our students for the future” with technological skills.

Paiva Weed replied, “One of the things we’re doing wrong is sending kids to charter schools when they aren’t really college material – instead of saying, ‘Maybe those kids should be going to vocational schools.’ [Solving education issues] requires all of us – families as well as teachers – working together to effectuate change. It’s not just about how we hire teachers.”

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