July 15, 2009

So This Is Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Almost an hour late, I finally made it to the Woonsocket School Committee meeting — I'll confess that the I-Way change got me — and just caught the tail end of the consent agenda. That's quite a difference from Tiverton, where tardiness of five minutes is apt to see the first page or more of the agenda completed. The room is mostly full, with maybe two dozen people, but hardly what one would expect during a time of tough decisions.

So far, I've heard mostly complaints about the General Assembly — with which complaints I'm enormously sympathetic, of course, but when a $6 million deficit is on the table, perhaps it's time to skip the complaints against higher authority.

8:03 p.m.

I have to wonder if part of the difference between this meeting and my imagination of what a Tiverton School Committee meeting (let alone an East Providence School Committee meeting) would be under similar circumstances is the union that represents the teachers. Woonsocket is AFT, while those districts in the East Bay are NEA. Or maybe it's just the difference between my home region and the Deep North, over here.

8:14 p.m.

Well OK, then. Apparently the reason they were just wrapping up the consent agenda when I got here was that they took the budget discussion out of order and front-loaded it. Monique was here on time, and although she's not versed on the specifics, she said it sounded as if they cut a multitude of things. The email that tipped me off to tonight's significance explained the result as follows:

Nobody is advertising much about it, but the new budget will be based on assumed concessions from the unions (I'm told upwards of a 10% pay cut), waivers of certain regulations (nothing specific that I have been made aware of), and there will be cuts in all areas of extracurricular activities (all sports except boys and girls track & field and all but one of each program in music and arts).

So they will be cutting football, baseball, softball, soccer, fieldhockey, tennis, volleyball, golf, wrestling, basketball, theater, debate, math team, jazz band, all Middle school programs, and others I'm sure I can't remember. On the academic side, for the fifth year in a row, the only textbooks to be purchased will be those provided to the catholic school students as required by law (they are the only ones academically protected), supplies will be cut to a bare minimum, the only capital project will be a repair to a leaking high school roof, and whatever else is not commited by law and class size limitations.

That would explained why School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois was joking about taking a lesson from the governor and putting forward a budget that's balanced on paper only.

I've got to say that the casual atmosphere, here, is almost disconcerting. As I drove in, the lazy summer evening feel of the streets brought to mind the degree to which most residents are oblivious to the actions of their local, state, and even national government representatives. Given the points of levity, it's almost as if that mood has infiltrated even the bodies that those representatives populate.

8:33 p.m.

Another topic on which it's possible to hear angst is the failure of the state government to pass legislation (PDF) allowing the district to institute a uniform/dress code policy. Being both conservative and working class, I'm a fan of uniforms in school... one obvious point of in-school disputes and discrimination is removed, and it's a lot easier to get the kids out the door in the morning.

Another small thing that I've noticed, and that may or may not be significant, is that the committee's agenda (PDF) calls for a moment of silence before the Pledge of Allegiance. Interesting.

8:46 p.m.

A member of the audience who's in the know informs me that the reason the room isn't filled into the hallway is that nobody in town knows what's just happened. There is allegedly an intention among school committee members to swirl the cuts around offices of authority in the hopes that somebody, somewhere — commissioner, judge — will mandate that the money be taken from somebody — state, taxpayers — to remedy what is, in point of fact, the current circumstance of the Woonsocket school system, as described in the block quote above.

9:04 p.m.

The same member of the audience just explained to me that the teachers' pay cut that the just-passed budget assumes comes in the form of 40 furlough days — roughly 20% of pay.

It's astonishing that even the union isn't in the room creating that tension that they create so well.