August 29, 2009

Conflict Is a Big Black Marker

Justin Katz

Developments in Woonsocket are fascinating:

Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist has warned School Committee members that they could be sued and Supt. Robert J. Gerardi could have his superintendent's certification questioned if the committee follows through on its threat to defy state rulings on hiring new staff for its literacy program. ...

She warned the committee that willfully failing to comply with state and federal education laws could provide "good cause" to examine Gerardi's state certification as a superintendent. It could also leave the School Committee members personally liable under federal and state laws that require government officials to fairly discharge their duties and enforce the laws that apply to their positions.

School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said the response to the committee's Wednesday night vote was not a surprise, but the tone was.

"I expected a reaction," he said, "but not as harsh or personal."

It would be easy to scoff that Dubois had a small-town understanding of the role and responsibility of municipal school committees and didn't comprehend the powers with which he was contending, and there may prove to be a certain amount of accuracy to that assessment if he is unwilling to face consequences of which is legal council should have been able to warn. More central, though, is his apparent expectation that the conflict would more immediately be addressed at a higher level of authority. If Commissioner Gist had moved the conflict up the chain in the form of an inquiry — perhaps to the judiciary — it would have entered the purview of somebody able to dictate a broader range of changes. Hearing Dubois's complaints, a judge might have gone so far as to prescribe a course of action for the school committee or the town council, thus absolving the locals of the blame.

But Gist chose to halt the process with a test of her own remedies' strength. Inasmuch as she lacks a police force, threats will have to be carried out from above, anyway, but her order for the town to address the issue will be first in line. In other words, before a judge decides whether the Woonsocket School Committee is correct in its claim that the members are merely choosing between conflicting laws and resolves the matter for them, he or she must consider the weight of the education commissioner's assessment that they are shirking their responsibility as government officials.

In essence, the question will be whether the committee's responsibility to taxpayers, and the authority deriving therefrom, or its obligation to enact state education policy is primary. Opinions about which outcome would be preferable likely break along the lines of reform strategies:

  • If the commissioner's authority is such that she can manage municipal finances under threat of superintendent decertification and challenges to elected officials' execution of their legal duties, then we've got a system of de facto regionalization, with Gist as the statewide executive.
  • If the commissioner is unable to assert her authority in this way, towns across the state will be more inclined to test their capacity for unilateral decisions, expanding the range of options open to local officials when setting policies for cities and towns.

Those who see locals as too weak and incompetent to stand against powerful interests (mainly the unions) should welcome the stronger hand of a state-level administrator. Those who see municipal offices as the most accountable to voters and available for change should prefer an education commissioner whose authority extends pretty much to the setting of guidelines and performance of assessment.

Personally, I'm of the latter mind. An authoritarian commissioner may, at first, mix forced property tax increases with new restrictions on union power, but the unions are massive organizations with endless resources, and after the initial round of hits, they'll direct those resources toward controlling the single seat in which the power of public education in Rhode Island will have been made to reside.

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The GA are spinless cowards. If they eliminated these unfunded mandates, alot of the problem would be solved. These mandates just create jobs for more union cronies. They do little to nothing, except cost us. Cities and towns are on their own. The state is sinking them with their inaction.

Posted by: kathy at August 29, 2009 4:22 PM

Does the Commissioner have the authority to revoke a Superintendent's certification?

Since certification is issued by the Regents, my guess is that she does not.

Is it appropriate for her to threaten a superintendent with personal de-certification based on a school committee's decision not to comply with a mandate from RIDE?

I think not, and I question the prudence and propriety of making such a threat.

Posted by: brassband at August 29, 2009 4:36 PM

Ms. Gist ought bone up on a few other laws / requirements before she opines on critical matters from on high, such as:

Woonsocket's City Charter:
Sec. 7. Exceeding appropriations prohibited.
No department or agency, including the school department, shall expend or contract to expend any money or incur any liability or enter into any contract which by its terms involves expenditures of money during the fiscal year in excess of the amounts appropriated

Rhode Island General Laws:
§ 16-9-1 expenditures, encumbrances, and accruals shall not, in any fiscal year, exceed the total revenue appropriated for public schools in the town. Should the town treasurer, finance director, or other charter officer charged with general responsibility for town finances, or the school financial officer, estimate that actual public school expenditures, encumbrances, and accruals may exceed the total revenue appropriated for the expenditures in any fiscal year, the school committee, the superintendent of schools, and the chief elected officials of the town shall be notified. Purchase orders or financial commitments shall not be authorized even on the order of the school committee unless it can be proven that there will not be an excess of expenditures, encumbrances, and accruals over revenues.

§ 16-2-9 General powers and duties of school committees
The school committee of each school district shall be responsible for maintaining a school budget which does not result in a debt.

RIGL 44-5-2 (S-3050):
… budget adopted and presented by any school committee for the fiscal year 2010 shall not propose the appropriation of municipal funds (exclusive of state and federal aid) in excess of one hundred four and three-quarters percent (104.75%) of the total of municipal funds appropriated by the city or town council for school purposes for fiscal year 2009;

The growth in property tax levies should be capped in accordance with section 44-5-2 of the general laws to five and one-half percent (5.5%) annual growth as a quid pro quo for receiving increased state aid to reduce reliance on the property tax.

(7) Cities and towns should be assisted in their efforts to control school and municipal expenditures by appropriately amending state arbitration and school budgeting laws.

Lastly, perhaps if Mr. Dubois didn't give away the store to the Woonsocket Teachers' Union, he be able to afford some of the unfunded mandates. All of his Union-hack teachers are receiving salary increases this fiscal year, despite the state hemoraging unemployment. He also has several hundred Union hack teachers that don't pay one red cent for Healthcare.

Indeed, as Mr. Dubois himself is a 40-something year-old Retired police officer who receives FREE lifetime Healthcare and a Pension that grows by 3% every year, one can not expect him to be able to credibly demand the necessary adjustments / reforms to the Union-hack contract.

That being said, some things are worth fighting for. It is time to steal a page from Patrick "I struggle mightly with basic math" Crowley's book and wave the middle finger as Ms. Gist.

Posted by: George Elbow at August 29, 2009 4:41 PM

GeorgeE, to be exact, the number of teachers in Woonsocket who pay nothing towards healthcare (isn't that quaint?!) is seventy four.

Beyond that, you make an excellent point that the Woonsocket School Committee is breaking a number of important laws beyond those cited by Ms. Gist. These include a failure to adhere to a budget and a refusal to recognize the authority of the Woonsocket City Council to set the amount of the education budget.

Posted by: Monique at August 29, 2009 5:19 PM


I may be wrong, but I believe the number of individuals NOT paying for healthcare going into this year's budget is 170+, not 74. Regardless of the number, just ONE non-paying member is too many.

And for those that do pay, the contribution is a mere 15%.

It would have been nice if Mr. Dubois & Co. took as agressive a stand with the Teachers' Union (as they are with mandates) rather than ignoring the Free (and near free) Healthcare issue and providing Salary increases for all employees (is anyone else getting salary increases in this economy?).

But then again, when your living on the Tit as Mr. Dubois is, it's hard to ask others not to.

Posted by: George Elbow at August 29, 2009 5:46 PM

Note that officials from Cranston and North Smithfield were quoted as saying they are closely monitoring this situation. Unfunded mandates have been a hot button for a long time but now during the worst economic downturn since the depression the state raises spending by 13% and lowers local and school aid raising the burden on homeowners who will foot the bill.

This could turn into a general revolt or a class action that finally gets a school funding formula. The smaller communities are getting the screws from the Providence's of the world.

Posted by: doughboys at August 29, 2009 6:00 PM


A "fair funding formula" (fair to whom?) is just another crutch and diversion for elected officials to use while not addressing the real issue, which is the Unsustainable spending tied to Union-hack contracts.

Let's have Collective-bargaining reform, REAL Pension reform and a right-to-work state before we fiddle with how to "fund" the Unsustainable spending.

For example, let's legislate that anyone receiving taxpayer funded employment related healthcare must pay at least 25% of the cost. We legislate the Minimum Wage (we don't leave that to collective bargaining). We can certainly legislate the Minimum that someone must pay for Taxpayer funded employment related healthcare benefits.

Let's outright repeal the collective "bargaining" laws that allow public employees to "negotiate" pay & benefits. They can negotiate working conditions only. Pay & benefits should be left to the free market.

Fix those things first, then you can play with how the funding is handled.

Just remember, the Unions love it when you all have arguments over State Aid and Fair Funding, as it distracts taxpayers from focusing on the Union-hack contracts that are bankrupting every city & town, including the state.

This issue is similar to NEA-RI's Bob Walsh floating the screwball idea of monetizing dwindling gambling revenue to fund the Unsustainable Pensions.

Rather than focus on and address the Unsustainable benefits being doled out, ole Bobby tried to change the discussion to screwball ways to fund the status quo.

Posted by: George Elbow at August 29, 2009 11:10 PM

The "progressives" (actually neo-fascists) concept of a funding formula is to emulate the "progressive income tax" (no pun intended) but based upon geography rather than income.

So "rich" communities in the suburbs would pay higer property taxes, but get less state aid than "needy" (urban) communities.

In other words, another redistribution of wealth.

The only truly fair and effective funding formula would be a per capita voucher for each child, which follows the child to whatever type of school their parent deems best for their child: traditional "public," charter, mayoral academy or private.

Posted by: Tom W at August 29, 2009 11:48 PM

You have to remember, though, most R.I. municipalities don't have the Dem Good Old Boys on Smith Hill rolling over for them the way Sue Menard does.
Maybe I wouldn't be hit with a tax increase if Charlie Lombardi got a makeover and new pumps.

Posted by: rhody at August 30, 2009 1:37 AM

Hey, Rhody, how's this for a title.

"Motorcycles, Manolos and Malfeasance: The Political Life and Times of S. Menard"

Posted by: Monique at August 30, 2009 8:09 AM