Mayors Take Matters In Their Own Hands
About a week ago, Dan Yorke interviewed Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee about the bottom-up education reform package he was shopping around. Since then, McKee has gained some support and he and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian were on yesterday’s ABC 6’s On The Record with Jim Hummel to talk about the plan.
McKee and Avedisian talked about how it’s just getting harder for local municipalities to fund education. The cities and towns keep hearing from the various state-level entities that change is coming, but no change has come. They can’t wait on the State anymore, nor can they necessarily trust it. For instance, Avedisian talked about the inventory tax phase out meant to help business. But part of the deal was that the state would help the cities and towns by alleviating some of the lost revenue. They stopped the payments three years in and haven’t resumed them.
Simply put, the state promises and doesn’t deliver. It’s up to local communities.
Both agree that it is no use fighting over splitting a shrinking pot. Instead, fundamental change is needed while maintaining cost and improving student performance. Now, there is no choice but to confront the longstanding cost-related issues head-on and not personalize the issues.
A tall order.
Nonetheless, the mayors of Cranston–who could work on containing costs himself–and Johnston, Lincoln, No. Smithfield, Smithfield, Portsmouth, Tiverton and a few other towns are on board with McKee’s path to change.
McKee explained that he sees no reason why they can’t simply identify what’s wrong and then proceed as if they were starting an education system from scratch. However, as Avedisian pointed out, when you try to start from scratch, you’re fighting against a whole host of “rulers of little kingdoms.” And when any talk of centralization is heard, there is also a knee-jerk reaction against anything that may cede local control.
Hummel mentioned that it isn’t always about throwing more money at the problem. McKee said that this group doesn’t think the answer is through raising taxes: cut costs and maintain or improve performance is the goal. Part of the problem is that they are losing upper tier taxpayers and gaining lower tier (non) taxpayers. The current system can’t support those demographic changes.
The plan is to hire a non-partisan group that will produce a position paper in September and to follow that up with a report from another group that will lay out its recommendations in early 2008.
Some of the specific problems were also discussed. For instance, the school committee in Warwick counted on the State upping their education budget 3%, but Avedisian didn’t. However, the school committed is essentially autonomous and don’t have to listen to the city. Plus, there is no accountability to how the school committees spend the money from the state or from the city councils. That needs to change. School committees can’t just put it towards operating cost. Mayors or councils need to be able to have a say in how the money is spent.
Avedisian also talked about the costs of providing busing for out-of-district students and the need to consolidate services.
McKee stressed that they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The past practice has been to move money around to help this or that community, but now, according to Avedisian, all of them are at a bad point. There hasn’t been a stable funding formula for about a decade.
McKee said he was not looking to take away from in-need communities, but other cities and towns were getting fundamentally weaker because they are subsidizing the weaker communities.
Hummel asked about a statewide teacher contract: Avedisian stated that, while it was a good conversation starter re: centralization, it was never going to happen. McKee added that, given the current rules regarding bargaining, even if you were able to do it now, you’d end up mirroring the highest paying community, which, for example, would financially kill Cumberland right now.
Hummel asked about a county government system. Avedisian explained that the communities in Kent County have talked about it on multiple occasions for specific issues. They are, after all, similar communities, so one would think that it would be easy. It’s not. Whenever they all get into a room, something goes wrong. One community always promises more, others have to follow, etc. There are some successes, though, as some of the communities have done bulk purchasing and saved money.
Hummel also pointed out that, while most of the plan dealt with education, there were other areas covered, too. For instance, he asked, does Rhode Island need 39 Police departments?
McKee said that, again, this is an area where you have to de-personalize the issue and not look at it like your taking someone’s turf.
Ultimately, the goal is to have the research to back up some of the ideas–such as regionalization or state wide contracts–that have been floated for years. If they end up looking worse than the current method, so be it. But it’s time to cast our eyes in another direction.
A few other points: Avedisian explained that the nature of the political offices involved–2 year mayors and 1 year state budgets–prompted no incentive to plan out beyond the short term.
To wrap up, McKee said that, by next year, he hoped that they were taking concrete action and weren’t just standing there with another pile of studies.