June 24, 2012

How I'd Fix the School Committees

Patrick Laverty

We have a problem in many towns with how our governance is set up. Towns have an executive and a legislative body that assist each other in running the town. Those two manage the municipal affairs including the Town Hall, police, fire, public works and almost all other parts of the town. However for some reason, we don't trust them to run the schools. Instead, we elect a completely separate body to run that one department. Why?

Along with this setup, we let the school committee negotiate contracts on behalf of the school system and they are responsible for the budget for the schools. However, the school committee has no ability to generate their own funding through taxation. Instead, they rely upon the town council to give them enough money to run the schools. But in most towns (all?) the council and executive have very little to no say in the budgeting and contract negotiations. It's kind of like the school committee is going shopping with someone else's credit card. And then what happens when the town council doesn't give the school committee the amount of money that the committee wants? The school committee sues the town council under the George Caruolo Act. When that happens, you have one group that represents the town's taxpayers suing another group that represents the town's taxpayers. In this situation, only the lawyers win.

Add on to this, the mayor and town council have very little say over how the schools are run and managed. The mayor stands out in front, creates a budget, sets a tax rate, the town council approves it and then just hands the money over to the school committee. When people aren't happy with the schools, they complain to the mayor. When people aren't happy with their tax increases that may be due to budgets created by the school committee, people complain to the mayor. There's little the mayor can do about the complaints.

So here's how I'd fix it. Maybe this change would require a change of the state charter, but whatever it takes, this is the change I'd make.

First, abolish the school committee as it exists today for all the reasons I wrote above. At least to eliminate the ability for one town committee to sue another town committee. That's just ludicrous.

Basically what I'm going to do is make the school committee a hybrid sub-committee of the town council. First, pick a number of members for the new schools sub-committee. For my example, I'll pick seven. I will let the chair or president of the town council appoint three members of the town council to the schools sub-committee. Town councils already have various subcommittees, so this isn't a big deal. Doing this guarantees that the town council has oversight into the schools and is involved with their budgeting and contract negotiations. If they're going to be involved with funding the schools, I want them to have some oversight as well. I can also see where this could be a lot of work and we may want to have some people who are focused on the schools. I am also going to add three at-large seats. These are people who will be on the schools sub-committee but will not be members of the town council. They will be elected by the voters, much like today's school committee members are elected today. So that's six members that I've added. The seventh and the chair of the committee will always be the mayor or town manager. Now the person who frequently receives the questions, complaints and frustrations with the schools will have direct oversight of the school system.

There we go, a whole new school committee system. It seems to work well. It allows the town council to have oversight without burdening the entire council with school management responsibilities and it also dilutes the power of the town council by having an equal number of people specifically elected to the committee. It also has the same people creating the budget and negotiating contracts that have to set the town's tax rate. Best of all, the person who many already believe runs the schools actually does get to do just that.

Why can't this work?

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Patrick, it’s a lot easier in the State of Hawaii which is the 43rd largest state by area comprised of over 120 islands and atolls compared to Rhode Island which is the 50th largest state by area.

Hawaii is over 1,500 miles long and larger than Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and District of Columbia by area.

In the State of Hawaii there is only one school district with one school superintendent, one school committee and one department of education and everyone working in education is a state employee supported by state income tax, sales tax, gasoline tax (vehicles and boats are not property taxed in HI) and any additional fees and licensing for special state services.

Hawaii constitution does not allow any government entity to make a profit at the end of a 24 month fiscal budget or carry any excess funds into the next fiscal budget year. All excess government budget funds must be returned to the taxpayers as a refund.

The 4 state-wide municipalities do not operate the education department but parents do take ownership of their community schools and are very involved. That is why depending on which or the 4 municipalities you live in your minimum annual property tax could be as low as $25, $100, $150 or $300 a year depending on your assessed property value, current tax rate/$1,000 and municipal and/or state exemptions.

Posted by: KenW at June 25, 2012 3:18 AM

Patrick you have put together a very good idea and excellent rationale for it. Here in Lincoln a few years back at our Financial Town Meeting the President of the PTO added $570,000 to our town budget. This was simply done by a motion from the floor. Even though there was no line item for the extra money and nobody could defend what it would be used for the money was voted in. It was voted in because a well orchestrated plan by the teachers union had enough teachers and their supporters there to vote it in. One of our School Committee members made a statement that night I will never forget. "Our function is to support education for our students, no matter what the cost." That said it all to me.

Thankfully now we have a new system so that large amounts like this can't be added from the floor. But is shows you the mentality that I am sure is prevalent in many of our cities and towns.

Posted by: Michael Napolitano at June 25, 2012 6:14 AM

The best way to expose school dept waste and keep committees accountable is to make them send out their own tax bill.

Posted by: George at June 25, 2012 7:07 AM

Rhode Islanders need to get over the obsession with the sovereignty of local cities and towns. We need one school department, one superintendent , and NO commissioner of education position.

I teach in Providence, the admin organizational chart of the school department is so bloated, and there are so many positions, that it looks like they are running a small country. No, we don't need a chief blah blah blah to oversee diversity or teacher recruitment. As far as the teachers and students are concerned, we need curriculum, payroll, hr, IT, and a few other smaller departments.

Schools themselves would still be local, but their governance would not. Perhaps high schools could extend out to accept students in a more state-wide regional approach.

A school committee could be a State entity, and we could eliminate all the budget problems and petty bickering that goes on in school committee rooms.

Teachers would benefit also, in that we could have seats on a superintendents committee to help govern our profession as far as curriculum and other aspects of teaching and learning. In addition, teachers would be members of just one union bargaining directly with the State. There would no longer be such dazzling disparities among teacher's salaries such as there are right now. Teachers in wealthy communities make much more than those in poorer communities, and arguably, inner city teachers have more complex jobs, and less to do them with.

Posted by: Snow at June 25, 2012 8:59 AM

Isn't the School Committee in Prov. appointed by the Mayor?

Does that work any better than the municipalities where the SC is separately elected? (I think not)

The real problem here, I suggest, is the diffusion of responsibility and power in such a way as to avoid accountability to the electorate at any level.

We need to provide BEP, the local officials cry. . . don't blame us, blame the Commissioner and Regents . . . we need to comply with NCLB, the Commissioner and assure FAPE for all, don't blame us, blame the feds . . .

More power, responsibility, and accountability at the smallest possible unit of government . . . that's the best approach.

Posted by: brassband at June 25, 2012 3:24 PM

"We need to provide BEP, the local officials cry. . . don't blame us, blame the Commissioner and Regents . . . we need to comply with NCLB, the Commissioner and assure FAPE for all, don't blame us, blame the feds . . . "

EXACTLY. Drive me wild with this game of diffused blame.

Add to that spineless city/town councillors who for years voted to hike school budgets under cover of, "But that's what the school committee approved!" WRONG. By law, you set the school dept's budget. If you're not willing to do your job, step aside for a vertebrate who will.

Posted by: Monique at June 25, 2012 4:54 PM

Monique -

MEP Daniel Hannan's fine little book "The New Road to Serfdom," describes how the diffusion of political accountability in the UK is killing democracy, and stands as a warning to America.

Posted by: brassband at June 26, 2012 6:42 AM

You have to appreciate the Smithfield Town Council. They've flat funded the schools for at least two years now. Not only did the school committee find the money to rescind all 28 lay-off notices, they have money for administrative raises. Wow! It must be magic.

Posted by: Max D. at June 26, 2012 9:35 AM

"Not only did the school committee find the money to rescind all 28 lay-off notices, they have money for administrative raises."

For that to be true, cuts had to have happened somewhere. The only thing that comes immediately to mind is retirements. If you replace some $80,000 teachers with some $38,000 teachers, the difference may be enough to cover raises and step increases.

Posted by: Patrick at June 26, 2012 10:01 AM

Of course there was no public explanation as to how they made the numbers work.

Posted by: Max D, at June 26, 2012 10:36 AM
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