— Portsmouth —

June 13, 2011

Re: Man Bites Dog: School Committee Sues Teachers Union

Monique Chartier

Responding via e-mail and under comments to my question, Tim Duffy, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, kindly explains the preamble to and basis of the Portsmouth School Committee' lawsuit against the NEA-Portsmouth.

The Portsmouth school committee implemented a new personnel policy that based teacher assignments on qualifications as opposed to seniority; the union contended that the policy needed to be negotiated and filed a complaint with the labor relations board.

The committee is seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that:

1. They have a management responsibility to students to assign teachers based on student need.

2. That case law grants this right and therefore the labor board lacks jurisdiction.

(Come to think of it, does the Labor Board have ultimate jurisdiction over anything? What percentage of the complaints filed with the Labor Board have ended at that body?)

June 10, 2011

Man Bites Dog: School Committee Sues Teachers Union

Monique Chartier

I don't fully understand the basis of the lawsuit; explications welcome. But this is a refreshing turnabout in a state where public labor lawsuits against elected bodies are filed, seemingly, as easily as shop grievances.

Portsmouth officials have filed suit against the town's teacher's union seeking to eliminate seniority as a factor in personnel decisions, including layoffs.

The suit, filed in Providence County Superior Court, asks the court to declare that the Portsmouth School Department's staffing policy is not subject to collective bargaining.

It states that a seniority dominated system ignores teacher effectiveness and student need.

You will be shocked, SHOCKED, to hear that the NEA is framing the discarding of seniority as an attack on labor, not as a change for the benefit of the students.

Susan Hatch, the National Education Association-Portsmouth's vice president, tells the Newport Daily News the lawsuit misrepresents the union's contract with the city and is an attempt to circumvent collective bargaining.

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 27, 2011

Give Them Time... and Money

Justin Katz

Although writing from Michigan, Kyle Olson has it right when it comes to his perspective on education happenings in Central Falls:

Central Falls students deserve a high-quality education. But instead, families are told to be patient as administrators and the teachers union hold meetings and create 45-page reform plans. And now the federal government gives the district a big check, which simply buys the defenders of the status quo more time.

At the School Committee meeting in Tiverton, this Tuesday, the committee and administrators turned part of their budget discussion into a plea that they lack the resources for early interventions that might improve results, particularly standardized test results, for students down the line. They talked about revenue sources that Portsmouth has that Tiverton doesn't; they speculated as to why Portsmouth's per-student cost might be lower, including the possibility that the town has fewer special education students. (Some quick research that I did online while they talked showed that a good portion of the difference is specifically in instruction, meaning the cost of teachers.)

As far as I'm concerned, that's all beside the point. Each town and city has the tax base that it has and the student population that it has. The principle studiously ignored during such discussions is that organizations must be built to do the work that must be done with the resources that they actually have. If that means that a particular district must pay teachers significantly less in order to hire math coaches or whatever else might be needed, then so be it.

The approach to labor and salary that has become part of public school culture begins with the premise that teachers should make roughly the same wherever they work, and the unions manipulate politics and local budget processes in order to prevent any real systemic balance of price, resources, and value. Pouring more money — whether local, state, or federal — into the equation causes the price of educators to go up and when the flow of revenue ebbs, programs and services go on the chopping block so that salaries never have to adjust downward.

January 10, 2011

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.

February 19, 2010

A Negative Approach to Governance

Justin Katz

And around and around not-my-town goes:

Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), whose district encompasses neighborhoods on both sides of the Sakonnet River Bridge, has introduced legislation that will prohibit tolls from being charged on the bridge. ...

Instead, Rep. Edwards proposes placing a toll on Interstate Hwy 95 (I-95) in Westerly and in Pawtucket as an alternative revenue source.

As a political matter, it's an easy call to reject state-level policies that will affect one's subregion negatively. And sure, perhaps there are marginal justifications for putting a toll in one place rather than another. However, this is just gamesmanship. If Rep. Edwards wishes to submit legislation that will solve the acute problem of a toll proposal while addressing the underlying difficulty, he should propose that the General Assembly allocate money from its general revenue to the basic infrastructure matters to which it ought to be going before anything else.

Of course, that would require the risk that people in his own district might dislike the decreased revenue for the ancillary government expenditures that would have to be cut, such as nanny state programs, inside deals, and union giveaways.

February 3, 2010

Start Installing Highway U-Turns, Now

Justin Katz

My blogging time has been constricted, this week, for two reasons: First, I've been working on a piece of writing of the sort that dangles a thread of hope that someday I may actually be able to make a living stringing words together. Second, I've been rushing to get back some of the excess tax money that the various tiers of government have been taking from my family rather than allowing me to pay all of my bills — of which I now have a large unpaid stack, with the late-fees piling up each month.

A few years ago, I figured out the necessity of redefining what I'd considered to be a normal, modestly frugal lifestyle. Per cultural norms, the prior calculation had been based on desires and expectations, not on any mathematical equations involving reality (which may be the defining error of municipal, state, and federal government, these days.) So, for small example, my lunch boxes at the time typically held a yogurt for morning break, a large sandwich, some sort of snack desert, a bottle of iced tea or something similar, and a 20oz coffee. I figured three dollars or so per day was a small expense for the comfort.

Of course, three dollars per workday is around $750 per year, so my current lunchbox now contains an apple for break, a modest sandwich, and a 20oz coffee. The savings aren't huge, but they might pay a bill each month. Introduce this:

Governor Carcieri Tuesday proposed a toll on the new Sakonnet River Bridge just like the one on the Pell Bridge over Newport Harbor, $4 each way or 83 cents for Rhode Island residents with EZPass.

For those of you way on the other side of the bay, I'll explain that, for most of us, the Sakonnet River Bridge has more the aspect of a main road than a highway. My family, for one, crosses it an average of six times per weekday and four on the weekends. At the "local" rate, that would add up to almost $1,500 per year, easily three times my lunchbox savings.

This isn't a cry not to have my own mule gored; it's advice not to gore any such beasts. Usage fees are generally preferable to broad-based taxes, but from its current position, the last thing the state should be doing is adding to the cost of a productive life in Rhode Island. Moreover, those in the thrall of regionalization should think twice about policies that would have the cultural effect of drawing lines around our communities.

December 10, 2009

Disappointment in Levesque Voters

Justin Katz

Even with the article's lack of specificity about Levesque's meaning, this is a bit hard to take:

"In a way, I'm disappointed in everybody," Sen. Charles J. Levesque, D-Portsmouth, said to Kai-Yan Lee, of the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, who presented a series of graphs on foreclosures, but "quite frankly no real suggestion of where we go from here."

Perusing the legislation that Levesque introduced or cosponsored in the last legislative session, it is clear that he's comfortable with the urges to micromanage and restrict economic relationships, to dilute the job market with illegal immigrants, to grow state government, and to increase the barbs with which parasites may latch on to Rhode Island's economy (as with binding arbitration).

Among the Rhode Islanders in whom Levesque should be most disappointed are the person he sees when he looks in the mirror and the voters who keep sending the likes of him to the State House.

November 15, 2009

A Same Old Same Old New Face

Justin Katz

While we're talking political platforms, it's worth noting that candidate Dan O'Connor has put himself forward as a candidate for whom those currently represented by John Loughlin (R., Little Compton, Portsmouth, Tiverton) should not vote. His letter to the editor of The Sakonnet Times isn't online, but it's adequate to summarize that O'Connor lists the various obvious problems that the state has, offers some political clichés, and writes revealing paragraphs like this:

I am a young, fresh candidate who hopes to make it to the General Assembly in order to shake the status quo while bringing a new perspective and new ideas to the State House. I have no ties to any elected officials and have not spent any time in "back rooms" working on deals behind the scenes [that] do nothing to help Rhode Islanders. I also intend to run as a Democratic candidate which is the party currently in power. As a Democrat, I will have the ability to work with the party to help our district.

So O'Connor advertises himself as an outsider and then explains that he's running as a Democrat in order to more easily become an insider. He has no experience in "back rooms," but he looks forward to entering them. He intends to "shake the status quo" by reinforcing it as a partisan.

I am running on three principles, the economy, the environment, and education. These are core principles so important to the well being of our state and are the principles I will be dedicated to working on once I am elected. Although the economy is an easy topic that so many politicians claim they are working on, we have seen no improvement here in Rhode Island. With the various challenges we face as a state, we need to tackle the issues with the economy in the same breath as education and the environment. In fact, all three of these are interrelated and need to be worked on in tandem. Creating green jobs and the people to fill them is one of the primary goals I will work on once elected to the state house.

It would probably be unfair to dwell on the possible meanings of O'Connor's pledge to "create" people to fill green jobs. It is not unfair to suggest that his vague plan illustrates precisely the wrong understanding of how government can positively affect the economy. It is also not unfair to scoff at his subsequent declaration that government "cannot solve all the problems our state faces." Why, then, should we rely on government to pick and choose the industrial direction of the state? Is Mr. O'Connor more qualified to construct profitable industries than the folks who'd actually research the benefits of setting up shop in Rhode Island and investing their own money to do so?

Dan's face may be fresh, but it's one we've seen before — far too frequently. Come on, Little Compton. We look to you for better.

February 14, 2009

A Cut Above, in Multiple Senses

Justin Katz

In Portsmouth, they're debating whether a 5% reduction in town spending should be a "goal" or a "mandate":

After a freeze in discretionary spending for what remains of this fiscal year, Portsmouth will try to cut spending by 5 percent in the next fiscal year.

The Portsmouth Town Council voted 6-0 Monday evening to make next year's 5 percent reduction a "goal" rather than the mandate sought by Republican Councilor Jeffrey Plumb who had called for the budget action.

"Welcome to an emergency," Mr. Plumb said, adding that strapped taxpayers cannot afford business as usual from their town government — "We should have cut our spending three years ago."

Town Administrator Robert Driscoll agreed that spending must be tightened but asked the council to make the 5 percent reduction a townwide goal. He said that while managers will do their best to "embrace" the challenge of identifying savings, departments in Portsmouth have less leeway than other places since they are already more lightly staffed than most towns.

In Tiverton, meanwhile, the Budget Committee has concluded that the only way (PDF) not to raise taxes on a struggling citizenry will be to institute the maximum reduction in school funding (enabled by declining enrollment) and to cut every expenditure that can legally be cut by 16.5%. As it is, the budgets currently submitted by the school committee and town council will result in a 13% tax increase (PDF).

A request from the Budget Committee, which is currently dominated by members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, for department heads to give the town a sense of what it might look like to cut 15% from their budgets has stirred up all kinds of resistance. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has intervened to insist on a process of moving that request through him and the Town Council (with some ambiguity about whether he'll actually follow through). In a very interesting exchange, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd insisted that he simply cannot cut the budget 15%, called the committee a "kangaroo court," and stormed out of the meeting (audio: stream, download).

The line from town officials appears to be that expense accounts are already bare-bones, and everything else is mandated by law or by contract. Oddly, our elected and appointed negotiators (as it were) appear reluctant to acknowledge that every labor contract that is relevant to next year's budget is currently open. Perhaps they intend to accede to the unwritten law that union deals can only advance or, during real calamities, level off.

Further along in the meeting, Budget Committee member Rob Coulter noted that committee documents show the school department's budget growing from $16,504,785 to $25,156,129 (52.4%) from FY01 to FY09, even as enrollment fell from 2,201 to 1,965 (-10.7%); per-student expenditures therefore grew from $7,799 to $12,802 (64.1%). For some perspective, I calculated what the per-student expenditures would have been if they had only increased along with inflation and found that, rather than $12,032 in FY08, the number would have been $9,120, which works out to a total appropriation of $18,642,027. In other words, from 2001 to 2008, the school department's budget increased 31.9% more quickly than inflation — or $5,952,360.

One gets the impression that the primary goal of municipal government is to transfer money from residents to union members.

February 5, 2009

A Hidden Tax in the Middle of the Road

Justin Katz

Rhode Islanders are beginning to catch on, I think, to the game whereby the state government spends our tax dollars on labor costs, entitlements, and other non-essential or excessive line items and then returns to the taxpayers requesting the passage of bonds for infrastructural basics, like roads. As has come up on Anchor Rising, before, the scheme contains a hidden tax, as well:

Gaping potholes have opened up in town and are snagging cars left and right.

All on Feb. 2, police received reports of eight incidents where drivers struck a pot hole and seriously damaged their vehicles — and many more strikes went unreported. All of these incidents occurred on state roads, and those with damage to a vehicle resulting may be able to recoup up to $300 from the state. ...

A Portsmouth man said he was at the Cumberland Farms on East Main Road, between Pine Tree Road and Schoolhouse Lane, when he noticed four drivers in the parking lot with "blown out tires." Twenty minutes later, he got a call from his daughter who needed help changing a tire that was popped by the pothole near Pine Tree Road.

When he arrived to help his daughter, he said "another six cars were changing their tires at that time."

"This is outrageous," the man wrote in the report he filed with police. "Because it is a state road, police cannot do anything. Shame on the R.I.D.O.T."

Police checked out the pothole on East Main Road near Pine Tree Road and measured it at one foot wide.

Department of Transportation Public Affairs Officer Dana Nolfe said on Tuesday that DOT's dispatch received six calls that day about potholes on state roads in Portsmouth. Now that DOT is aware of them, she said, workers will go out and patch the holes as soon as the weather permits.

Yes, in the extreme, direct circumstances, the motorist can recoup some or all of the repair expense, but note the declining number: One eyewitness observed a total of thirteen cars, while police received reports of eight, and the DOT heard from four people (who weren't necessarily among those experiencing damage).

One also must remember that the $300 doesn't cover the lost time, productivity, and peace of mind on the day of the incident or of the repair. More broadly, it doesn't cover the gradual accelerated wear on the vehicles of everybody who drives over the miles of rough roads every day nor the time and aggravation of those who face the roads' effects on traffic. The right-hand southbound lane of West Main in Portsmouth is a painful ride — just about undrivable in a work van — so drivers tend to stay in the left, congesting flow.

To avoid such outcomes is why we pay taxes in the first place.