The Gov’t Giveth and the Gov’t Taketh Away: State Diverts Half a Million in School Aid to Select Vendors

In a move that should set off alarm bells in (state-aid receiving) school boards around the state, Ed Comm Deborah Gist will pay three overdue school invoices directly and reduce state aid to the Woonsocket school department by that amount.

Three vendors owed money by the Woonsocket Education Department will receive the funds directly from the Rhode Island Department of Education, thanks to a decision this week by Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist.
The state will withhold a total of $555,000 in education aid for Woonsocket, instead paying monthly invoices to three programs that provide services for some of the city’s disabled students. NRI Community Services, Action Based Enterprises/Hillside Alternative Program and the Sargent Center, all private schools providing special education programs, will receive past-due tuitions for Woonsocket students from RIDE, bypassing the school department. The funds were scheduled to be disbursed to WED at a rate of $185,000 a month.

First of all, does anyone know whether this action has any precedent? Not legal, just historic – i.e., has this ever been done before?
Of course, these invoices represent vital services that are provided to Woonsocket students. Then again, isn’t most of the school budget comprised of vital services? Can the school system do without teachers, for example, or fuel oil or electricity or et cetera?
But isn’t it the role of the school committee to determine how school dollars are spent? Granted, as with the mayoral powers of Central Falls’ Charles “Board-Up” Moreau (D-Lincoln), though for substantially different reasons, there probably couldn’t be a worse example of an elected official/body in the state to attempt to defend. With its inexcusable lack of oversight of a rogue superintendent and business manager, the prior Woonsocket School Committee has placed the city on the precipice of bankruptcy. Additionally, the results of its (in)actions and possible malfeasance might well become the target of a police investigation.
Additionally, there is no disregarding that Commissioner Gist’s act comes down, if you’ll excuse the cliche, to a pragmatic “golden rule”: he who has the gold makes the rules. If the state is handing out aid, ultimately, they’re going to do what the heck they want, up to and including showing preference to certain unpaid vendors of a floundering school department.
At the same time, this action evokes a distinctly queasy unease: it appears to violate state law that dictates that school committees shall determine how school budget dollars are spent and, presumably, when they are disbursed. Additionally, where does it end? Does this establish a new, questionable pattern of a (current or future) state Education Commissioner stepping in and accelerating the payment to a local vendor?
Larger issue: regardless of the soundness of the specific decision, what is the benefit of state government reaching down and meddling – sorry, there is no other word for it – in a local budget matter?
[Coincidentally, over at Ocean State Current, Justin expresses similar concerns on a different front – that a bill submitted as “part of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s package of legislation to address the budgetary problems of Rhode Island’s cities and towns” might be the first step towards a state move to centralize school budgeting.]

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10 years ago

The Commissioner took similar action in a slightly different context recently when the Chariho School District refused to pay tuition for students from that district attending two charter schools.
The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the Commissioner’s action.

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