— Little Compton —

April 1, 2011

Using Transparency to Know What Administrators Should Be Investigating

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, notes that school administrators in Tiverton appear to analyze differences between their approach and that of one of the most successful districts in Rhode Island (neighboring town, Portsmouth) only to the degree that they can formulate excuses why their own students and community in general are to blame for the disparity in results:

It's typical, among public officials, to focus on others' mystery resources and sunnier demographics and to insist on the impossibility of comparison and accountability. The fact remains, though, that Tiverton pays $1,290 more per pupil. Yes, Portsmouth's budget is 33% bigger, but its student body is 46% bigger. And even if it were accurate to suggest that Portsmouth has expenses that it doesn't report to the Department of Education, its unlisted expenses would have to amount to $3.6 million, not $300,000-400,000, for the per pupil spending to match Tiverton's.

Moreover, the UCOA shows that one needn't imagine phantom revenue, because the lines in the budget show that the "philosophical shift" is reflected in how the district spends the money that it does declare. The two districts spend about the same percentages of their budgets on regular education (73% Tiverton; 72% Portsmouth) and special education (both 24%), and Tiverton throws another 1% in for vocational and technical education. The strategies for allocating those budgets makes all the difference.

A lower median income surely has some effect on educational outcomes and the strategy used for achieving them, but it doesn't explain why Tiverton appears to focus on higher-cost employees and, say, health education over math education.

March 16, 2011

A Lesson for the Town's Educators (and Parents)

Justin Katz

Not surprisingly, a majority of Little Compton parents would prefer to keep the town's students flowing through one of the state's best high schools, in Portsmouth, rather than move them over to Tiverton's facility right next door. I've explained why I would feel the same, were I among them, but the number of reasons that the parents gave makes for a stunning rebuke to Tiverton and its leadership:

Some factors favoring Portsmouth are its 13 Advanced Placement classes. Middletown has 11 and Tiverton has nine, respectively. Portsmouth also offers 74 extracurricular activities and sports. Middletown offers 28 and Tiverton offers 22, respectively.

Portsmouth scored 70 percent proficient on their New England Common Assessments Program tests. Middletown scored 69 percent proficient and Tiverton score 63 percent proficient, respectively.

For the 2012-13 tuition, Portsmouth offered Little Compton $9,000, while Middletown offered $9,602. Crowley said Tiverton could not provide a cost, but instead, a range of $14,187 to $15,954. For the 115 slated pupils to attend high school during that first year, with tuition at a 3 percent annual increase, Portsmouth was the lowest. Middletown's would have increased approximately $69,000 and Tiverton’s approximately $596,000. ...

Another parent said one can’t ignore Tiverton High School's 827 suspensions, while Middletown has 252 and Portsmouth has 85.

Perhaps most stinging is the impression of one Little Compton School Committee member that Tiverton High School, alone among the three, lacks a "sense of community."

Joining the most limited offerings with the highest price (by far) is not a winning combination. One wonders why Tiverton tolerates that which Little Compton looks likely to decline to accept. Yet, scarcely a word can be heard or read from Tiverton parents demanding better results from the town's public schools.

January 10, 2011

State Reps in Town

Justin Katz

The Democrat trio of Tiverton's state representation — Rep. Jay Edwards, Sen. Walter Felag, and Sen. Louis DiPalma — appeared before the Tiverton Town Council tonight. Here are my notes:

Edwards started out by noting his request for legislation enabling biannual licensing reviews (or longer).

Felag: The budget is the major issue, and Governor Lincoln Chafee must submit a 2012 budget by February 3, and he could also submit a supplemental 2011 budget.

Town Council President Jay Lambert: has heard that school aid may be cut.

DiPalma: State aid to schools only indirectly affects town (mainly affecting the school department). RIDE is reworking funding formula; Little Compton, for example, was going to lose money but is now gaining money [funny how nobody ever loses money, given time]

Edwards: Tiverton's projected loss is about $165,000 per year, "give or take"

Lambert: Referring to the current controversy over whether the town must indemnify the schools against losses in state aid, then cuts certainly do affect town.

Edwards: Has proposed to increase construction aid. Also noted that it would cost only $13 million per year to "hold harmless" suburban communities from changes in the funding formula, and he's put forward legislation to do so for two years.

Felag: The funding formula that passed last year doesn't go into effect until next year, and it will see multiple legislative attempts to change it before then.

Coulter: Asked about mandates from the state: how would we formally appeal them.

Felag: Until 2006, there were about 280 mandates from the state. "It's easy to say I'm going to get rid of state mandates, but there are a lot of good mandates." Solution: "submit a list that you'd like us to work on."

Edwards: "Doesn't have to be formal; you can just send us an email."

Felag: Trying to get state to have budget by beginning of June, but municipalities should think about having some 13-month budget needs.

Resident Joe Souza: The state should repeal the funding formula. The governor's legislation to eliminate mandates died in legislature, last year. Souza illustrated by requesting a show of hands that there's no support on the council for binding arbitration for teachers, and he opined that fire and police arbitration should be non-binding.

Felag: [Changing the subject.] Already have in legislation for no tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge.

7:38 p.m.

To continue the liveblog with material that's mainly of local interest: Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz has researched who has authority to act on behalf of the town administrator when he's not able to be reached (for signatures and so on) and, finding nothing satisfactory, drafted a resolution that would allow the council to appoint somebody (e.g., the town clerk).

Councilor David Nelson asked whether Mr. Teitz thinks that President Lambert acted inappropriately by signing a request to the state auditor general for an extension. Teitz said he believes so.

8:06 p.m.

Town Administrator Jim Goncalo presented his first draft of the municipal budget; some notes:

  • 2% increase in salaries for department heads.
  • No increase for any bargaining units.
  • Addition of a 1/2 clerk in treasurer's office.
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield advised that they include a 10% general increase in costs, plus 2.5% for a "health reform" increase
  • Tax base has increased from $2,183 million to $2,191 million; motor vehicle tax from $1,192 million to $1,150 million.

Council Member Nelson: 3.8% increase in budget = $644,002

Goncalo: The application of the projected near-million-dollar surplus from FY10 would be taken up by the Budget Committee as a recommendation to the financial town meeting

Council Member Coulter: If we're increasing the budget even as we're collecting more in taxes than we need, then we can change the increases.

Council Member Ed Roderick: If we have liabilities, we may not be able to access the surplus.

Council Member Cecil Leonard: Surplus only brings town up to 3% reserve required in the charter.

Goncalo: Regarding "so called" increase [so called?]

  • $10,000 in debt service

  • $225,000 for mandates revaluation

  • 15,000 general government

  • $257,000 financial administration

    • health insurance/liability: $128,000

    • pension costs: $76,000 (50 in police)

    • unfunded liabilities: $40,000

    • half-clerk in treasurer's office: $20,000 (not including benefits)

  • $62,000 for fire and police combined increased

  • $74,0000 for DPW ($30,000 for engineering study for new license for landfill, and landfill closure engineering study)

Lambert: Budget should reflect full liability to the schools, if we're obligated to pay for state aid shortfalls

Goncalo: The best place would be as a FTM docket resolve. [an astonishing suggestion, I think, that would write that interpretation explicitly in town policy, if approved at the FTM]

Talk of folks on fixed income (meaning, typically, Social Security) is common in these discussions. I didn't get a chance, but I wanted to point out that retirement income isn't the only way to have "a fixed income." The amazing thing about public budget discussions is that increases such as labor and utilities are presented as things that must be passed on to taxpayers. I can't go to my boss with the assumption that he'll cover my increased costs of living; what's the equivalent restraint on public budget setters? (Elections, of course, but that should be a more explicit consideration.)

8:49 p.m.

Councilor Coulter proposed the following resolution:

WHEREAS: The Town Council is responsible by Charter for a long-range plan which includes the development of goals, objectives, strategies, plans, and policies in furtherance of such planning; and

WHEREAS: Rhode Island General Laws also place responsibilities upon the Town Council, among other things, to generally manage the affairs and interests of the Town and specifically partake in financial and budgetary matters concerning the Town; and

WHEREAS: Long-range planning will better assist the Town in meeting its current financial obligations and future needs and facilitiate improved financial and budgetary decision making all for the betterment of the Town’s financial stability and security;

IT THEREFORE BE RESOLVED, by the Town Council of Tiverton, Rhode Island that:

(1) That the Town Council supports and approves in concept the development of a Long-Term Financial Plan to be in the best interests of the Town;

(2) That the Town Council hereby expresses its intent to further investigate, develop, and as appropriate, implement a Long-Term Financial Plan;

(3) That such Long-Term Financial Plan will include the Capital Improvement Plan and may also include a Financial Corrective Action Plan to address the known outstanding obligations of the Town; and

(4) That all Town departments, boards, commissions, and officers shall be so notified and invited to assist in the investigation, development, and as appropriate, implementation of the above.

It passed. Coulter will start by collecting known liabilities.

9:02 p.m.

Now, they're discussing a new controversy related to school budgets.

President Lambert in previous discussion spoke about school committee's claim of indemnification against loss of aid. Now, he wants to discuss a second issue under potential litigation. School lawyer Robinson's letter to the education commissioner requesting a hearing and a ruling says that the town has "taken control" of $75,000 in tuition from Fall River students attending Tiverton schools. School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black's related letter calls the move "illegal."

Lambert summarizes the school department's argument as follows: The town must include Fall River students in its budget and then hand over Fall River tuition directly to the schools, effectively paying the schools twice for the same students. No town official was aware that there was an issue. The treasurer says they're handling the matter just as they always have (at least for 8 years). The town budgets for the students and then puts the money in the general fund. Indeed, Lambert cited a requested deposit from the schools into the town's general fund of one of last year's checks from Fall River. The school committee has never discussed the matter in an open meeting.

In Lambert's opinion, "This dispute has nothing to do with tuition for students coming from Fall River." It is no coincidence that this issue arises during discussion of Little Compton students' possibly attending Tiverton High School (paying over a million dollars per year). "This is simply an attempt to set a legal precedent that would have Tiverton taxpayers paying for Little Compton students through the school budget, while the district still receives payment from Little Compton."

Frankly, under Chairwoman Black, with the advice of Solicitor Robinson, one begins to get the feeling that the School Committee is hungry for lawsuits. Some might call it out of control.

9:46 p.m.

It's been a long meeting. One interesting note: Treasurer Phil DiMattia has submitted notice that he's "temporarily" changed his voter registration to elsewhere, although his wife maintains property in town. There was some discussion of whether he can keep his elective job; Solicitor Teitz is researching it.

What School Choice Is Already Telling Us

Justin Katz

For several generations, Little Compton, RI, has been practicing a community school choice by sending its teenagers elsewhere for high school. The obvious choice should be Tiverton, just over an indistinguishable border, but at least since the '70s, the kids of LC have been traveling to Aquidneck Island. My Patch column, this week, looks at the probable reason and suggests that the implied changes would benefit local kids, too:

In his presentation to the Little Compton School Committee, available on his district's Web page, Tiverton Superintendent William Rearick made the case that Tiverton has the excess capacity to accommodate its neighbors. He noted that the high school is in compliance with state requirements. And he pointed out that Tiverton's students outperform the state average on all four of the New England Common Assessments Program (NECAP) tests - albeit, just barely in math and science.

Tiverton's advanced placement course and SAT data, Rearick presented without comparison, leaving no context by which to understand whether the results are admirable or unimpressive. The absence of competitive spirit only highlights the presentation's avoidance of the choice that Little Compton actually faces.

December 7, 2009

We Need a Taxpayer Grievance

Justin Katz

How can an entity — whether a business, a town, a nonprofit, whatever — operate like this?

[Little Compton Firefighter Fred] Melnyk was off duty at the time, out of uniform, and had been in the fire-station earlier at 11:16 when the medical incident in question was called in. An emergency medical technician (EMT) with cardiac training, Mr. Melnyk immediately responded to the call by himself, driving the Rescue 1 to the scene at John T. Martin Road, one mile from the station.

He later found himself stranded there when two other firefighters, who had arrived in two separate fire trucks, fresh from finishing another nearby incident, took Rescue 1, with a patient inside, and drove to Charlton Memorial Hospital, 30 minutes away.

That left Mr. Melnyk with the two parked fire trucks that needed to be returned to the station. With him was the fire chief and his command car. A decision was made (that Lt. Woods later grieved) that Mr. Melnyk, still off duty and at no cost to the town, would drive the two trucks back to the station, and not leave them parked on John T. Martin Road, a task Mr. Melnyk accomplished in two trips, ferried back to the residence by the chief in the command car.

Lt. David Woods has filed a grievance claiming that he should have been called in for his four-hour minimum of overtime pay, receiving $127.36 for around twenty minutes worth of work.