On School Budget Confusion and Arbitrary Authority

Trying to follow public policy debates — particularly those having to do with the transfer of government money — is like trying to make sense of an incoherent dream. Whenever you hear or read that there is “confusion” or “ambiguity” related to a particular law, it’s a reasonable assumption that one or more parties are doggedly asserting false conclusions based on irrelevant information. Such appears to be the case with a recent disagreement between the Warwick School Committee and City Council concerning legislation that allowed towns to reduce their contributions to their schools during the recession.
Normally, towns must follow “maintenance of effort” provisions in the law that require at least the same amount of local money to be appropriated for the schools each year, with some allowance for reduction based on shrinking enrollment. In 2009, the legislature added the following language to the relevant statute:

Provided, that for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 each community shall contribute to its school committee in an amount not less than ninety-five percent (95.0%) of its local contribution for schools for the fiscal year 2009.

The clear and plain reading of that language would allow a town to hold the schools to 95% of their 2009 local contribution for 2010 and 2011 without regard to the rest of the statute. The fiscal 2012 requirement brings back the requirement to contribute at least as much as “the previous fiscal year.” Careful reading of the article (which is confusing, and which, for some reason, doesn’t cite the relevant law) suggests that Warwick allocated $123.9 million in local funds for schools in FY10 but took the legislature up on its offer to reduce that amount in FY11, to $117.7 million.
The Warwick School Committee is asserting a legal right to at least the FY10 amount for its FY12 budget. Since the law makes no mention of reverting back to 100% of older budgets, however, it is clear that “the previous fiscal year” (FY11) would be the new baseline. That is, the Warwick City Council is entirely within the law to hold to the $117.7 million, and the leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly have chimed in to confirm as much.
School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado cites a letter from Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist justifying the schools’ position and, no doubt, in true Rhode Island fashion has some behind-the-scenes assurances from the Department of Education. Although I can’t find the text online, having read a few such “rulings,” I’d expect it to be the legal equivalent of mumbling in one’s hand before asserting an arbitrary decision. Unfortunately, these things aren’t decided by the clarity of the law, but by the willingness of the parties to keep rolling the dice at each successive stage of legal review, up through the Department of Education and then the judiciary.
That’s all pretty standard, though. The disturbing aspect is what tends to get lost in these narrow debates and, through accumulation, in civic discourse more generally:

“She is the commissioner of education and she’s our boss,” Furtado said. “I honestly don’t know where we’re going to find the money; we’re already down to the bone.”

Deborah Gist is not the boss of the Warwick School Committee; the people of Warwick are. Too often, elected officials join with the education bureaucracy to conspire against their communities’ taxpayers. Rather than muddying the legal waters with strained analysis, Furtado and her committee ought to set about finding a way to live within the restraints that they have insisted must be imposed. Many of the people of Warwick are surely “down to the bone,” as well, and very few of them have $150 million annual budgets to comb for savings.

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12 years ago

I guess the question I have from this is for the General Assembly. Why do we need a law dictating how much local school committees and towns must allocate to their schools? If a town wants to cut their school by 20% in a given year and the people of the town agree to that, why not? Otherwise, why isn’t there a cap as well? Why not say that no town may increase their school budget by anything more than 5% a year? Heck, we have a similar law on the books for raising the property tax assessment.
If a town wants to slash, let ’em.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz
12 years ago

To answer your first question: By imposing a minimum amount of local funds, state lawmakers can take credit (mostly from teachers’ unions) for “supporting schools” without having to expend much political capital, while the union organizers and education bureaucrats see the value in having a legal ratchet on budgets.
To answer your second, there is a cap for school departments corresponding to the tax cap on municipal budgets. However, since School Committees typically can’t appropriate their budgets, their cap amounts to a limit in what they can request. In Tiverton, they often find ways to stretch it upward, and even then they make their request and then scare teachers and parents into rallying at the financial town meeting, where allies make much larger increases as amendments.
As I’ve said, once you get into the weeds of these laws and policies, it’s really unnerving how thoroughly everything tilts toward an ever-growing government.

12 years ago

Perhaps AR is finally catching on to the fact that “Ms Debbie” is a fraud and a charlatan?
I would suggest that they investigate further. Our Commissioner of Education has taught a grand total of 8 years. All at the Elementary level.
She is CLUELESS as to what goes on in an urban High School.
Her “Teacher of the Year” award. Not at the State level. Not at the District level. But at a single Elementary SCHOOL!
Her RECORD in DC? Mainly as a fundraiser for the district..

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