May 10, 2009

Where Tiverton Goes from Here

Justin Katz

Saturday morning, a majority of electors at the Tiverton financial town meeting (FTM) for 2009 voted to cut the Budget Committee's recommended school department budget by $627,247 — explicitly subtracting $174,054 from the local contribution and $453,193 from the expected general state aid. Owing to a Budget Committee resolution passed earlier in the meeting, any "federal, state, or local government aid" in excess of that amount would be "returned to the Town's General Fund as a surplus."

If not for a time limit before the meeting would automatically have recessed until the following week — thus risking a repeat of last year's performance — the municipal budget could have experienced a similar cut.

As one might expect, rumors (aka threats) of litigation are already circulating, and Rhode Islanders have been conditioned to see such actions as unavoidable consequences of cold process. As with children decrying the restrictions imposed by peer pressure, the excuse will go out from officials and union members alike that laws, mandates, and contracts leave them no choice. Adults should understand that there are always choices, the question being who refuses to make the right ones.

In evaluating the path forward, Tiverton should recall to mind two antecedents without which Saturday's result would likely have been quite different: the suspicious outcome of last year's FTM and the imprudent raise and retroactive giveaway to the teachers' union in January. Both galvanized those of us who see a need for an overhaul of priorities, and both compounded the difficulty of dealing with current financial strain.

For all the shades of gray, there are really only two paths forward. Our representatives can take the taxpayers' cue and push back on those whom they've previously perceived as tying their hands — the unions and the state. Or our representatives can continue fighting reformers and attempting to move as much of their habitual agenda as possible.

If they choose the former approach, they'll force the unions and state lawmakers to accept the mantle of intransigence against financial reality and taxpayers' demands. They'll also find eager support amidst a growing wave of active citizens with their eye on transforming Rhode Island into the national leader that it ought to be.

If they choose the latter approach — if they cling to the remnants of a withering status quo, if they continue to pile on the antecedents to escalation — they might just push an increasingly organized opposition to the next level of involvement: namely, campaigns for office.

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"the next level of involvement: namely, campaigns for office."

Youza. This is getting serious.

Posted by: Monique at May 10, 2009 8:49 PM

Wow. Talk about a superficial analysis. Mr. Katz writes: "the excuse will go out . . . that laws, mandates, and contracts leave . . . no choice. Adults should understand that there are always choices, the question being who refuses to make the right ones."
Actually, it seems to me that adults should understand that abiding by the law and honoring contracts tend to be the right choices.

Through Mr. Katz's opaque prose only one message is clear, and it was evident at the town meeting -- some people in Tiverton want to have their cake and eat it too. They want good schools and don't want to pay for them. They want town services but don't want to pay for them. They want to challenge the assessments on their property so can can pay less tax, but they have no plan to make up the inevitable short fall. Perhaps their frustration with the financial pressure they are feeling is understandable, but the way in which a narrow majority at the meeting just hacked at the budget with no principle to guide them other than "we don't want to pay" was most irresponsible.

Posted by: Community at May 11, 2009 10:07 AM

Laws can be challenged and changed. Mandates can be excused. Contracts can be renegotiated. In fact, the town's three big contracts don't have to be renegotiated — just negotiated.

The teachers' contract approved just a few months ago (after a contentious year including deplorable actions on the part of the union) accounts for more than half of the amount cut from the schools.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 11, 2009 10:49 AM

Incidentally, "Community," I reject your premise of motivation. While I can't speak for the several hundred people with whom I voted on Saturday, at least some of us aren't saying "we don't want to pay" so much as declaring that we're sick of being abused by factions adept at manipulating the system and officials willing to be manipulated by it.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 11, 2009 12:10 PM

"They want good schools and don't want to pay for them"

Community, this is an empty (some might say "superficial") statement without factual back up. Please advise:

- What is Tiverton's academic performance ranking statewide and nationwide?

- Where does Tiverton's expenditures on schools stand statewide and nationwide?

- Do these rankings correlate to each other?

And remember to add the overlay of the state as a whole: teacher pay in the top 20% and academic performance in the bottom 20%.

Posted by: Monique at May 11, 2009 12:16 PM


Your argument is good, but what happens when the teachers simply say they are not interested in renegotiating? I assume it means cutting out programs. The commissioner has only rarely allowed waivers of mandates, and never for anything requied by law.

So, I always wonder, when does a taxpayer know when a school department or municipal government has reached a resonable level of efficiency?

Posted by: John at May 11, 2009 12:24 PM

This is what's so frustrating about the result on Saturday. Mr. Katz, who claims to have the information necessary to recommend to the voters that the school budget be cut offered no support for his position at the meeting, and now, in response to my suggestion that he offer more simply says, "we're sick of being abused by factions adept at manipulating the system and officials willing to be manipulated by it."

That's the sort of analysis voters rely on to reject a budget recommended by the School Committee, the Budget Committee, and the Town Council? As I wrote elsewhere, many voters are clearly angry, and the angry ones outnumbered those who were willing to let the considered judgment of those more knowledgeable prevail. But that doesn't mean that what they did was a good thing. I still haven't heard a good argument to support the vote to cut the budget.

Posted by: Community at May 11, 2009 1:39 PM


Try this for "a good argument to cut the budget":

"We don't have the money to pay for the budget."

And I suppose I should also include, "and there is ample evidence that public education in RI is anything but effective and efficient compared to other states -- like the one just up the road from Tiverton."

Really, my friend, what planet do you live on?

Posted by: John at May 11, 2009 3:45 PM


1. That's helpful. You just made my point.

Under your analysis, why stop at subtracting $627,247 from the budget? Why not go for broke? Look, the fact is, some people just decided they weren't going to give the school committee and budget committee what they recommended, damn the consequences. Maybe it was a good decision, but as far as I can tell no more thought went into it then that.
Not exactly a pleasant process to watch or to participate in. Sometimes mobs get it right, but sometimes they get it wrong.

2. Earth.

Posted by: Community at May 11, 2009 4:22 PM


Perhaps you're new to the discussion, or perhaps it's rhetoric, but I've covered many angles of public education. Search Anchor Rising. Search You'll find orderly tables, pretty charts, and extensive discussion of everything from SAT comparisons to the fact that Rhode Island teachers make more than the national average, even as Rhode Island workers earn less.

I presented some such arguments to the school committee before they approved the latest contract, and Chairman Jan Bergandy interrupted my three-minute speech to say extensive discussion wasn't appropriate. Have you asked, or would you ask, the school committee how they arrive at the conclusion that the remuneration that it offers is appropriate? I'm not aware, for instance, of any studies or evidence that cutting salaries and benefits would hinder the town's ability to attract and retain motivated and high quality teachers.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 11, 2009 8:11 PM
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