October 20, 2010

Warwick School Committee Chair Calls for End of School Committee

Marc Comtois

Testifying before the Warwick Charter Review Commission, current Warwick School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel has come to the conclusion that the Warwick School Committee has outlived its usefulness and should be integrated into city government.

Traditionally, school committees were responsible for establishing curriculum and adopting educational standards and policies within their respective communities. The school committee’s traditional roles have all but been eviscerated by both the federal and state government who have, through federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind and through the implementation of various state mandates, assumed the responsibilities once under the control of local education bodies. The local school committees have largely been relinquished to handling fiscal as well as personnel matters....

Having served upon the Warwick School Committee for the past six years, I do possess a unique insight into the operations of local government, and more particularly, those of the school department. While I respect the roles that school committees have played in this country for over 200 years, the continuing centralization of education at the state level has, to a large degree, rendered them irrelevant, and has simply resulted in duplication of functions at the local level. Therefore, if the Charter Review Commission for Schools is to make a recommendation to the City Council to change the role and authority of the Warwick School Committee, I would respectfully suggest that anything short of this proposal would simply be shifting, not solving, any problems.

Friel believes that integrating the management of the schools under the Mayor and moving its budget under the direct oversight of the City Council would streamline operations and remove a lot of the bickering and finger pointing that goes on between the Committee, Council and Mayor.

Retiring School Committee member Lucille Mota-Costa disagrees with the idea and believes the current bad economic times could be clouding long-term judgment:

I believe our school age children and their families need direct representation to keep the issues clear for them (good or bad) as well as all taxpayers of Warwick.

The present system affords them that distinction. The students in our city number 10,505 [and] their direct voice is limited to 5 publicly elected officials (nine would make more sense). These officials are also directly responsible to the parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles and general supporters of education which total number could easily represent 40,000 of the 52,000 (Beacon 2006) active registered voters/taxpayers in the city of Warwick, an obvious majority. And also given that the school department expenses represent 58 percent of our total municipal budget, the present system makes good sense to me.

Mota-Costa further would accept the idea of the School Committee sending residents a separate school tax bill, but a major change in the Warwick charter would have to be made:
Warwick and North Providence are the only two remaining districts with legislative charters in the state of Rhode Island. All the rest have home rule, which affords the local resident the opportunity to approve or disapprove annual municipal budgets. Therefore I have deep concerns about a charter commission that wants a school committee to respond to gaining taxing authority that neglects to discuss the primary issue first, which is home rule and greater voter representation during the budget process.
Personally, I can't imagine not having a School Committee and think its very important that voters elect people who will be advocates for the education of city's children--even expanding the committee as Mota-Costa suggests. But I'm also intrigued by the idea of consolidating collective bargaining and budgeting under one entity, if for nothing else than that it helps to clarify which entity would be responsible for property tax increases!

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This is actually an idea that I had a while back, but then was told that abolishing the SC would require amending the state constitution or charter.

My idea, at least in my own town, was for one of two plans. Either completely blow out the SC and make it a subcommittee of the town council, as they do already have subcommittees for a variety of things, and the town council oversees the school department, or, go for something a little more radical.

Keep the school committee, but change its makeup. The mayor and chair of the town council are both on the school committee. The mayor and the chair each get to appoint two other members to the school committee and the mayor acts as the chair of the committee. Any tie votes fail.

I think my first committee composition makes more sense and more likely, even if that is extremely unlikely.

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