The Differences in Barrington
So why did Barrington buck the school-budget-cutting trend? I’d say that there are three factors, the most important of which being the track record of the schools themselves.
As Andrew illustrated yesterday, Barrington’s schools are arguably the best in Rhode Island. Of course, as even the union will argue when it suits its purposes, it’s very difficult to tease those results apart from demographics, but one can make some interesting observations about spending. First of all, the district’s per-student spending on teachers is relatively low; a spreadsheet that I’ve developed over time places the town as 23rd in the state for this measure. Indeed, Barrington’s per student spending on just about everything is relatively low.
One other curiosity is the structure of the town’s steps. For the 2007-2008 school year, the town was seventh from the top in pay for its highest step, but eight from the bottom in average step. Plotting all of the state’s step structures on a line graph (covering the 2008-2009 school year) illustrates why:
Barrington doesn’t escape the middle and back of the pack, in teacher pay, until the upper steps. The town also has relatively high longevity and higher-degree bonuses. In other words, one could surmise that the Barrington school district strains within the very narrow limits of the union step structure to reward desired behavior. It ain’t a merit system, but it has some related features.
The second factor that I would note as explanation for the results of Barrington’s financial town meeting is probably less consequential, but related. It’s a relatively wealthy suburb, especially compared with some of the more politically heated towns in the news lately.
The third factor — once again related and once again of less significance — is that the taxpayer group formation in Barrington is tied, in its inchoate form, to property revaluations, especially on higher-end homes. The currently active (as opposed to potential) constituency is not as broad as with, say, Tiverton Citizens for Change, which has resulted from a mix of working-class and fixed-income ire, general response to suspicious political games at last year’s financial town meeting, and (yes) property-tax concerns.
It isn’t my intention to offer opinion on the Barrington voters’ action, the other night, or to suggest a direction in which the town should head. Among the things that I love about Rhode Island, however, and among the reasons I’m hesitant to jump on the regionalization bandwagon, is that one really can look around at each municipality as a self-contained segment of the statewide experiment.