A Formula, but It’s Just Numbers
It looks like the General Assembly actually did get around to passing a state aid formula for Rhode Island’s schools. As we’ve been pointing out all along, folks at the local level have seemed to assume that a “fair funding formula” would be one that gives them, specifically, more money, and this legislation does acknowledge some districts as “over funded,” therefore reducing their aid.
From a taxpayer perspective, though, this is a critical component:
Besides correcting inequities in state aid distribution, the legislation would help local communities by providing predictability for school district and local budget planners. Without a predictable formula, school districts and municipalities have been forced to guess at the amount they will receive when they are preparing their budgets each spring. Their budgets must be created in time for the start of the fiscal year on July 1, but the amount of state aid they can expect to receive is in flux until the General Assembly passes the state budget, which usually happens in late June.
In Tiverton, for example, the School Committee predicted a low aid number and frightened parents into believing that schools were going to be closed and every program cut. As it turns out, our 8% tax increase could have been almost to the state cap of 4.5% without a change in the practical outcome. Now, ostensibly, school districts will have to find other ways of creating doomsday scenarios to shake down property owners for money to keep up with the promises of inadvisable contracts. In particular, it will be more difficult for districts to compensate for losses in “restricted” — about which they tend to be less vocal — without acknowledging that they are doing so.
There is a reason for concern, though. The current system hasn’t been unpredictable because the General Assembly has heard pleas from individual districts and shifted money around on a whim. It’s been unpredictable because the state is in perpetual deficit and long-term economic decline, leaving the state government ever in need of places to cut. Although the existence of a big scary formula might make legislators a little more timid about reducing aid to cities and towns, it will hardly prevent them from doing so, whether on a permanent or this-year-only basis.