What It Means to Settle in Woonsocket

It may be that news coverage of municipal issues falls into a cycle of confusion leading to disinterest leading to ignorance leading to confusion. Yesterday, John Hill and Richard Dujardin reported an event in Woonsocket as follows:

The City Council on Monday night gave its unanimous approval to a proposed out-of-court settlement that could stave off continued litigation by the School Committee over $3.69 million that the School Department is seeking from city coffers for the fiscal year that ended in June.

Today, the story has moved from the Rhode Island section to the front page with a more thorough explanation:

The good news for the city administration Tuesday was that the School Committee agreed to drop its lawsuit over a $3.69-million deficit in the last budget year.
The bad news: The anticipated deficit in the current school budget is much bigger.
There’s a $6.9 million difference between the School Committee and the City Council over how much to spend on schools in this fiscal year; it jumps to $10.6 million when the 2008-09 deficit is added in. The reconciliation of those numbers is set to start Wednesday at a joint budget workshop session between the committee and the City Council.

Essentially, the school committee plugged its 2009 hole with 2010 money, and the town council, which legal precedent leaves with no authority to stop that from being done, acknowledged as much and agreed to move on to the next budget. The downside is that even the school committee’s impossible plan for the next year will come up 62% shy of the budget gap. With the teachers’ union digging in, the school committee surely expects the money to be found, somewhere, and that somewhere would have to be the town’s taxpayers.
Of course, it’s possible that all of the committee’s proposed cancellations that are not protected by contract and law — sports and extracurricular activities — will remain in the final result of the wrangling to come. The people of Woonsocket, in other words, will have their elected representatives to thank for the inexorable trend in Rhode Island government of paying much, much more for much, much less.
It seems to me that taxpayers and the parents of school children should begin negotiating contracts with those whom they elect. Union contracts are held up as inviolable, while, as we’re learning in Tiverton, even democratically mandated expenditure caps may be dismissed with a puff of administrative hot air.

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