April 13, 2010

Budgeting Disconnect Identified: the Fallacy of "Underfunding"

Monique Chartier

... but not the usual fallacy that inevitably leads to comical yard signs like "Save our Schools" when contracts are up for re-negotiation.

Yesterday, during the last hour of the WPRO Morning News with John Depetro, Cranston School Committee member Frank Lombardi called in to defend the actions of himself and certain other committee members in "solving" the $9 million school budget deficit by cutting sports and other programs. After some ... er, frank observations by the host, they got down to brass tacks. Mr. Lombardi pointed to the accomplishment of the school committee in cutting $2 million from the budget. John pointed out with some exasperation that the shortfall was $9 million, to which Mr. Lombardi replied

It was not a $9 million shortfall. We were underfunded.

Sorry, no. Respectfully, this is a major misapprehension, though one shared with many other school committee members around the state. It is the city council, the body legally vested with the ability to tax, which determines the amount by which the school budget will be funded. It is, therefore, the city council (and, ultimately, the taxpayer) which decides whether the school budget will be "underfunded" or "overfunded". From the perspective of the school committee, the school budget is simply funded; it then crafts the budget on the basis of that number. A school committee which decides that the budget is "underfunded" and acts accordingly has not only stepped way beyond its legal purview but has placed itself in a position where it will be compelled to choose among nothing but terrible solutions to right the budget.

Lastly, as the matter of "under" versus "over" funding as been raised, on a statewide perspective, in view of the fact that teacher salaries in Rhode Island are in the top 20% while student achievement is in the bottom 20%, it is clear that school budgets around the state have been over rather than under funded. This can undoubtedly be traced in part back to many other school committee members who, like Mr. Lombardi, have an inaccurate grasp of the scope of the otherwise vital role that they fulfil.

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Bullseye, Monique! Underfunded = Entitled in Rhode Island.

Posted by: Andrew McNulty at April 13, 2010 7:02 PM

Monique, thank you for a clear synopsis of the matter of funding.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 13, 2010 10:52 PM

Just to clarify not to defend -- what Mr. Lombardi was referring to was the Audit done by order of Judge Savage. The Audit Committee found that the schools had been underfunded 2.1 million dollars each year since school year 2007-2008. They found that the amount set by the City did not allow for enough funds to cover those items covered by mandate , BEP ,and contractual obligations.

Posted by: Janice Ruggieri at April 14, 2010 5:17 PM

Janice, it was incumbent upon the school committee to craft its budget - in particular, the contracts it negotiated - within the funding level set by the city council. The city council, not an unelected auditor, has the authority to tax and, therefore, to determine the level of spending on both the school and the municipal sides of the budget.

Posted by: Monique at April 14, 2010 8:42 PM
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