An A Priori Ruling from RIDE
Every year, for the past several, Tiverton’s Financial Town Meeting has made a distinction between the amount that it was appropriating from “local funds” and the amount that it expected from state and federal aid. For fiscal year 2010, the state aid came in $367,165 less than predicted, and the school department took the money out of the town’s general fund, anyway, even though it had a surplus that year.
The town treasurer at the time, Philip DiMattia, returned the money to the town, and the school committee sued. Not surprisingly, given that this is Rhode Island, the first step in such litigation is with the state Department of Education, and even less surprisingly, RIDE ruled in favor of the government body more directly under its control:
In her summary, [Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist stated that “[w]hen state aid does not materialize in the sum expected, a city or town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made.”
In other words, she said, the Town of Tiverton is required to hold the school committee harmless for the total appropriation if the anticipated state aid does not materialize. The law requires a single sum (“an amount”) to be appropriated, she ruled.
In a broad context, the ruling illustrates a huge problem with our modern bureaucratic system of government. The elected legislature passes laws, and the elected governor appoints bureaucrats to implement those laws, but often those bureaucrats make significant changes to those laws while acting as all three branches of government in one unelected body: legislature (by creating specific “regulations”), executive (by implementing the laws), and judiciaries (by, as in this case, ruling on disputes related to its execution of the regulations).
There are two relevant statutes containing the reference to “an amount.” 16-7-23 doesn’t refer to “appropriations,” but to “provision”:
The school committee’s budget provisions of each community for current expenditures in each budget year shall provide for an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.
The law goes on to say that the “community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year,” with certain exceptions, and to say that additional state funds cannot displace local funds already appropriated. The simple reading of this statute is that the town’s appropriation of its own money must take into account revenue from other sources and then provide enough funding to meet the state’s basic education plan (BEP). That this is the appropriate reading is solidified when “an amount” appears again in 6-7-24:
Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available to the school committee for approved school expenditures during each school year, to be expended under the direction and supervision of the school committee of that community, an amount, which, together with state education aid and federal aid: (1) shall be not less than the costs of the basic program during the reference year, (2) plus the costs in the reference year of all optional programs shared by the state; provided, however, that the state funds provided in accordance with § 16-5-31 shall not be used to supplant local funds.
There’s no way around the fact that the law draws a distinction between what a town appropriates and what it receives in state and federal aid. It cannot do otherwise, because a town cannot appropriate money from other, higher government entities. In the case at hand, the schools did not prove that they need that $367k to meet the BEP; it was, after all, a surplus.
So now, to force the law to be applied accurately, the town would have to appeal the commissioner’s ruling to the Board of Regents, which is just as likely to be in schools’ camp, and then to the state judiciary, all while paying the lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Little wonder citizens become apathetic; the law, as Tiverton’s school and municipal government entities have proven repeated over recent years, is whatever you can get away with.