— Cranston —

February 13, 2012

Cranston Pensions: Rhode Island… with Emphasis

Justin Katz

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity had published data covering all of Cranston's public-sector retirees, and I've posted a general comparison of the numbers with those for the state system overall.

January 17, 2012

The Cranston West Banner Can't be Required to Just Disappear

Carroll Andrew Morse

If the Cranston West banner has to be destroyed or removed, or if certain words have to be redacted from it, to comply with Judge Ronald Lagueux's Federal Court decision, there is no reason why a Soviet-style disappearance from history without explanation must occur, or that the public should not be informed that they are looking at a version 2 of the banner or at the space where the banner used to be.

If the minimum-modification option is pursued, various utilizations of the space on top or to the side of the banner are possible for displaying an explanation that would respect the history and original message of the banner, without violating any Supreme Court "endorsement of religion" tests.

Here's one proposal...

In 1963, David Bradley and the Cranston West community chose the imperative mood, to express a message they believed would help people live and grow together.

In 2012, Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that the state forbids mentioning to whom or to what the requests are addressed.

Judge Lagueux's ruling should not prevent anyone's lifelong consideration of all of the reasons why we aspire to be better on our next day than on our last,

nor imply that the state can decide the answer to this question for us.

*** ******** *******
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston
High School West.

In the meantime, a note should be added to the tarp covering the present banner saying "The Federal Government forbids you from seeing what is behind this covering".

April 26, 2011

An Illustration of RI's Advantaged Class in Cranston

Justin Katz

Like the swapping of high-paying public jobs for the sons of union leaders, the fact that Cranston is currently paying $67,107-86,778 annual pensions to six former police chiefs feels emblematic of the state's broader systemic corruption:

In the past 20 years, Cranston has hired — and retired — six police chiefs.

Most served three years or less at the helm of the Cranston Police Department and they ranged in age from 48 to 51 when they retired. Their pensions are based on their salaries on the day they retired — with no minimum tenure or averaging of final years of pay.

The retirements placed six top-salaried employees on Cranston's pension payroll with guaranteed minimum 3-percent cost-of-living raises each year for life.

There is clearly a class that lords it over Rhode Island. Get into the club, and you're set for life. Otherwise, you'll spend your years in the state with a target on your back... or rather, on your wallet. All but one of these ostensible community leaders retired in his 40s.

March 11, 2011

Once Again Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

This started out as a comment to my previous post on the topic, but it began to feel more like a post in its own right.

As usual, our left-leaning readers have got me all wrong. I have absolutely no problem with any religion having an exclusive prayer posted in public schools, even with required recitation each morning provided there is no national policy that prevents the same for other religions. That is, let some community somewhere implement daily Muslim prayers, as long as there is no longer an ACLU veto on Christianity elsewhere.

If God blesses a minority-religion community with smarter, better adjusted, and more economically productive young adults as a result, perhaps the rest of the country would benefit from the example. (Go ahead and argue against that proposition without founding your argument in some article of faith.)

For my own community — that in which I pay taxes and am registered to vote — I would advocate for support (maybe even encouragement) of individual exploration and articulation of beliefs, with all given equivalent rights to public expression, and the added proviso that traditions already in place require the democratic process (not threats of lawsuits or judicial fiats) to change. If there's a banner, if there's a traditional appearance by the Easter Bunny, if there's an annual Hanukkah festival, then the entire community should agree to ending it.

As much as it pains me to use the "m" word with reference to my own stance, you don't get much more moderate than the above. Unfortunately, ideologues have succeeded in convincing a broad swath of people (especially in the Northeast) that their extremism is the default for all right-thinking people.

Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

I've been at a loss as to how to respond to the comments to my post this morning about the Cranston school prayer banner, because those who advocate for the removal of the banner are so extreme in their beliefs (even those who are typically reasonable and moderate in their approach) that they appear to lack any sense of proportion or capacity for compromise on this issue. Fortunately, Mangeek has phrased the position in a way that facilitates my response:

I'm an atheist dues-paying member of a conservative Christian church (figure that one out).

It would be one thing if there was a prayer/religious group in the school that met weekly and put something like this up in their 'wall space', but it's not. When a school itself puts a banner up that starts with 'Heavenly Father', it's an overt endorsement of religion, and it gives people like me the willies.

I've also been omitting the (recent) McCarthyist addition of 'Under God' line from the pledge since I was twelve. When I was a scout leader, I made an effort to drop the 'God stuff' from our various daily oaths and sayings. I also allowed my scouts who weren't religious to stay back at the campsite during mandatory 'religious hours' at Yawgoog so we could engage in somber, silent reflection of the week's successes and failures.

Keep in mind, I'm in no way anti-religious, I'm anti-authoritarian, and putting 'heavenly father' banners up, adding 'God' to a pledge spoken at the opening of school, and mandating religious service attendance at camp all fall under the 'authoritarian' category for me.

You want religion in school? Fine, have it from students on the same terms that groups meet to discuss the environment or school governance, but keep it firmly separated from school administration.

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?

  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

I'm especially confused about how Mangeek could choose the former as more authoritarian because he also believes it's authoritarian for a religiously founded private group (the Boy Scouts) to require prayers and attendance at some kind of religious service).

The Direction of Imposition with Cranston Prayer

Justin Katz

The debate over a banner with a prayer in a Cranston public school — which the ACLU attempted to bully the district into moving with the threat of a lawsuit and which the school committee has voted to defend — makes very stark the contrast of the sides. On one side is the fact that public statements of religion were once part of the culture, and that this particular prayer is interwoven with the history of the school:

The students picked the school colors and the mascot and, following models from other schools in the district, a prayer and creed.

Originally, Bradley said, the prayer banner and creed were stored in the school building. In 1962, Bradley said, students started reciting the prayer instead of "Our Father" as part of their morning exercises. And, in 1963, when the auditorium opened its doors, the prayer and creed were affixed to the walls of the auditorium as a gift from the first graduating class.

On the other side is the assertion by an aggressive minority that merely being in the presence of such a banner somehow forces them to do something against their religious nonbeliefs:

"This prayer endorses religion. It endorses a specific religion," said [sophomore Jessica] Ahlquist, who is an atheist. The prayer, she says, "is discriminating against us."

For "a majority to say that you can take away a minority right, it's wrong," Ahlquist said. "It's also un-American."

There is no minority right being taken away. Students are not forced to recite the prayer. They are not forced to stand silent while others recite it. They are merely required to acknowledge that belief in God is a significant part of the school, city, state, nation, and civilization's heritage and, indeed, present culture and accept that they have no right to unilaterally erase its markers.

That's what really underlies the broader movement to strike religiosity from the public square: a claim to a special right to forbid the majority from acknowledging its shared faith, even to the degree that historical expressions thereof must be completely erased — wiped out. The zealotry of this movement is so strong that the ACLU will now harm real, present students in the Cranston district, as well as the employees and taxpayers of that community, by forcing the district to pay for a legal defense simply because the most local, discrete tier of government — where the inherent self-definition of democracy should be greatest — refuses to bow to a powerful national cult.

February 26, 2011

Education Roundup

Marc Comtois

A bevy of education-related stories today. The repercussions following the Providence teacher "firings" continue, with Mayor Tavares getting attention from the New York Times. The ProJo reported that teachers fear it's the end for seniority-based retention, which is kind of a strange way to put it because, as the story also explains, that end was already foreshadowed by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist last year.

In Warwick, a review panel has recommended more transparency on the part of the School Administration, citing communication breakdowns between the City-side and School-side. According to one commission member, there was also "an air of mystery around school finances" that needed to be made more understandable. They also various scenarios for reconfiguring the make-up of the school committee. The report should be available at warwick.org some time soon. Meanwhile, the Warwick School Department unveiled an new electronic records program that will make student data available to all "stakeholders" (including parents!). Warwick also issued the contract-maximum 40 teacher layoff notices (but can only actually fire 20).

In Cranston, the School Committee is asking for $3.5 million in concessions from school unions and asked the City for more money. However, Mayor Alan Fung has already indicated he plans on level-funding the schools this year.

January 4, 2011

Cranston's 2011 Inaugural Ceremonies (Plus Some Non-Ceremonious Stuff), Part 3

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here's the non-ceremonious part of Monday night's inaugural ceremonies in Cranston. After his official address to the public, Cranston City Council President Anthony Lupino attempted to appoint City Council Committee chairmen. Three of the Democrats appointed by President Lupino to chairmanships, but who had not voted for Councilman Lupino, objected to being appointed. Councilman Emilio Navarro went first...

We are very disappointed that you have put our names, as minority Democrats, to serve as chairmen and vice-chairmen of the committees tonight, knowing full-well that we have declined those assignments... Audio: 1m 18s

...To appoint Democrats to chairmanships would be an attempt to camouflage that this is a new Republican coalition that is in control. Appointing minority Democrats to chairs would be in name only, because the Republican coalition would represent the majority of the committees and, as such, this new majority which has elected its new leaders who have set up the committees now sets their agenda, their rules. It doesn't make any sense to have minority Democrats serve as chairs... (Note: At and the end of his remarks, Councilman Navarro received a round of applause)Audio: 2m 15s
Councilman Lupino responded...
Just to dispel a few misconceptions, Councilman Pelletier and myself were elected as Democrats and we remain Democrats...The purpose of being elected to the City Council is to serve your constituents. I spoke in my address to you about blurring the lines between the parties. We are here to represent the people. You run as a Democrat. You rule as a City Councilman. (Note: Councilman Lupino received the loudest spontaneous round applause of the evening, at the end of this clip). Audio: 1m 10s

The appointments, per the charter, will remain... Audio: 1m 27s
Democratic Councilman Steven Stycos then declined the chairmanship of the claims committee...
I think that so much of politics is built on trust, and that you as the President need to have people who you trust chairing the committees... Audio: 2m 42s
I spoke with Councilman Stycos after the meeting had adjourned, and he expanded on what I think is a reasonable point: A council President should appoint committee chairmen from his leadership supporters, so that when the occasional honest mistakes or miscommunications occur in the transfer of business back and forth from committees to the full council, worries that some kind of gamesmanship is occurring will be minimized.

Finally, Democratic Councilman Paul Archetto declined the chairmanship of the ordinance committee...

I would like to say that I will resign that position as chairman of the ordinance committee, due to the fact that I will only be a figurehead. I know in reality who will be running that committee as well as you do, Council President. I would like to say that I was not consulted in any way, shape or form... Audio: 1m 25s
And with that, we're off, for 2011 and maybe beyond...

Cranston's 2011 Inaugural Ceremonies (Plus Some Non-Ceremonious Stuff), Part 2

Carroll Andrew Morse

In addition to the inaugural ceremonies, last night's meeting at Cranston West was also the first official City Council meeting of the 2011-2012 session, the main order of business being the Council organizing itself. As was predicted in previous news accounts, Democratic Councilman Robert Pelletier voted along with Republicans James Donahue, Leslie Ann Luciano, and Michael Favicchio, in support of making citywide Democrat Anthony Lupino the new Council President. The other four Democrats on the Council voted for Democrat Emilio Navarro for President.

After the election, Councilman Lupino gave his first address as Council President...

...I view government as a ladder. The rails of the ladder are made up of the executive branch and the judicial branch. The rungs, we create, we are the legislative branch. Some of us are stepping on the rungs for the very first time, while other of my colleagues are climbing the ladder. Some have fallen off of the ladder a couple of times and have come back...Audio: 1m 19s

...No matter how trivial our job may seem, whether we are dealing with trash or snow removals, stop signs or potholes, or intense issues such as taxes and floods or school budgets, the goal is the same -- it is important to the citizens making the plea. They need and deserve your help. As we proceed up the ladder, the issues become more complicated, more far-reaching and many times, more personal. I have a special God-child serving in the army stationed in Kuwait. I pray for her safe-return every day. This may seem far-fetched, but I didn't perceive I sent her there, but my government did, and because I represent government, in a way, I did send her there and must take the responsibility of her safe return...Audio: 1m 19s

To be elected means you take the responsibility to serve those who elected you. I encourage all of you to do your very best and to take on all of the challenges and positions you are presented with. Whether you are elected, appointed or hired, government is serious business...Audio: 1m 4s

Cranston's 2011 Inaugural Ceremonies (Plus Some Non-Ceremonious Stuff)

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last evening, in ceremonies held at Cranston West High School, Allan Fung was inaugurated as Mayor of Cranston for his second term, members of the City Council and school committee were sworn into their offices, and the City Council held its first on-the-record political fight of the year. (We get down to business fast, or something resembling business, here in Cranston).

1. Mayor Fung offered an inaugural address with a forward-looking section focused on three issues: economic development, a Mayoral Academy, and infrastructure improvements...

We knew certainly what was coming...millions of dollars in cuts coming from the state. Throughout these very difficult years, we've risen to the occasion and absorbed those significant losses of a devastating amount of revenue to our great city. We've done it by trimming the cost of our day-to-day operations through restrictive purchasing practices and sadly, just like most of us in the private sector, [through] some serious labor work-force reductions as well. But on top of that, I was very fortunate to been able to have worked with our unions, and I thank all of them for coming to the table and bringing about real union concessions...Audio: 1m 18s

...Every day, each and every one of our employees do their best work with fewer resources...Perhaps the most notable effort on the part of all of my employees happened during the historic March floods, where we worked together...to insure there were no serious injuries or deaths...Thank you for that effort... Audio: 1m 28s

While we are still going to continue to battle many fiscal challenges, there are still some long term innovative projects that will meet the challenges for the next generation that I will continue to push, and one of those critical areas is in the area of economic development. Over the past term, the Council and I and my administration and all of the city employees have worked hard to successfully bring in over 500 new jobs to our great city...I am committed to do more, and I know that each and every one of these individuals behind me will do the same and we are going to work with the Governor and his economic development director, to make sure there is a cohesive strategy... Audio: 2m 24s

...I am really excited on working on a Mayoral Academy here in the City of Cranston... (Note: mention of the Mayoral Academy gets the 1st round of spontaneous applause during the speech)Audio: 1m 19s

And finally, our infrastructure is in sore need of repair...We are going to continue to push for our roadways and drainage systems to be upgraded... (Note: a mention that Cranston's bond rating has achieved A-status gets the 2nd round of spontaneous applause during the speech)Audio: 1m 14s

...Tonight, I also want to take a moment to wish the best of luck to the members of the incoming school committee...and to the incoming [City Council] members, tonight we really embark on a new endeavor, a new term with so much potential for success. I am confident that we can work together, and keep as our unified focus the greater good of the people of the City of Cranston...Audio: 1m 19s

December 27, 2010

More than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Cranston City Council Leadership Dispute (But Also How It Might Tie Into the Big Picture of RI Education Reform)

Carroll Andrew Morse

I sat down last night to write a brief post explaining how the politics of the Cranston City Council is tied to the politics of education reform in RI, discovering in the process that it could not be done briefly.

Here's what should be (and will be) the last paragraph, explaining why readers beyond Cranston may have a stake in this subject...

Expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?
If you have further interest in the subject (for instance, on who Anthony Lupino is) read on...

Background of the leadership dispute mentioned in the title: The current Cranston City Council President, Councilman John Lanni, could not seek reelection this year because of term limits, meaning the Council must choose a new President for its term beginning in 2011. Initial reports that came from the post-election Democratic caucus indicated that Democratic Councilors were going to unite behind Ward 2 Democratic Councilman and current Finance Committee Chairman Emilio Navarro. However, it was reported a week ago that city-wide Democratic Councilman Anthony Lupino had actively obtained the votes to become the new Council President, supported by a combination of Democrats and the three new Republicans elected to the City Council this past November (James Donahue and Leslie Ann Luciano, elected city-wide, and Michael Favicchio elected from Ward 6).

To understand the implications of this unexpected leadership kerfuffle, it helps to know a few details about recent Council history...

  1. After Republican Allan Fung was elected Mayor of Cranston in 2008, Councilman Navarro spearheaded an effort to replicate the RI Statehouse governance model in the Cranston City Council chambers, i.e. the City Council Democratic leadership, backed by the numbers needed to pass or kill any measure on a straight party vote, would be the ones who "really" ran the city. The immediate test was a police union contract negotiated by Mayor Fung. Navarro led opposition to the contract, demanding that the Mayor get additional concessions from the police that would provide better "structural reform" for the city's finances -- despite the Council having approved previous contracts without anything resembling "structural" changes under the administration of the previous Democratic Mayor.

  2. The initial police contract was rejected by the council 6-3, with Councilman Lupino voting in the majority against the contract along with Councilman Navarro. One of the 3 votes in favor of the contract was Ward 4 Councilman Robert Pelletier -- who, according to MSM reports, is the key Democratic Councilman now supporting Councilman Lupino's leadership bid. (Eventually, a revised version of the police contract was passed 9-0, the political side of the equation being the City Council coming to realize they were going to get the lion's share of the blame for the consequences of not passing one.)

  3. Over the course of 2009-2010, the City Council considered two resolutions that put members on record on important statewide issues. In 2009, Mayor Fung sponsored a resolution opposing state-mandated binding arbitration for resolving teacher contract negotiations. The City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the resolution, with Councilmen Navarro and Lupino as the only two votes against. In 2010, the Council voted on another resolution, also supported by the Mayor, asking the RI legislature to repeal the "Caruolo Act", the section of Rhode Island law that allows RI school committees to sue their municipalities for more money in the courts. This resolution failed by a vote of 5-4. Once again, Councilmen Navarro and Lupino were united on the same side, voting against asking the legislature to repeal Caruolo, while Councilman Pelletier voted in favor.

  4. Combining the results of the 3 votes above (police contract take-1, Caruolo and binding arbitration) shows Councilmen Navarro and Lupino voting together on three issues of significance and Councilman Pelletier voting in opposition to them in each case.

  5. The odd-couple leadership alliance between Councilmen Lupino and Pelletier seems to be related to the rift in the Cranston Democratic Party involving State Representative and Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, City Chairman Michael Sepe and State Representative Charlene Lima. This is the rift that made the news several weeks ago, when it reportedly led to a House leadership decision, where Mattiello presumably had some say, to fire Chairman Sepe's son and Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria from full-time legislative staff positions. In accounts of Cranston politics, Councilman Pelletier is mentioned as an ally of Rep. Mattiello; for example, the story linked to earlier in this paragraph says that Rep. Mattiello was unhappy with Chairman Sepe for not supporting Councilman Pelletier for Council President.

  6. Stepping away from the backroom politics and towards the stuff that happens in public view, Rep. Mattiello has been a part of House Speaker Gordon Fox's group of Democrats that have advanced a set of meaningful education reform measures in recent legislative sessions, including the lifting of the charter school cap and establishing Mayoral Academies.

  7. And Mayor Fung is part of a group of RI education reformers who would like to bring a Mayoral Academy to the West Bay.
So let's assume for a moment that Councilman Lupino becomes Council President with Councilman Pelletier's support, that on big issues Mayor Fung starts 2011 with 3 Republicans as his base of support, and that Councilman Pelletier continues his reasonably sane voting pattern that sometimes puts him in opposition to the City Council Democratic majority (and is also politically compatible with Ward 4, the section of Cranston by Route 295 and beyond, which isn't exactly master-lever Democratic territory).

Who then becomes the potential fifth vote on the Cranston City Council for innovative education reform measures, like creating a West Bay Mayoral Academy?

  • The fifth vote for ed reform is not going to come from citywide Councilman Anthony Lupino. Whoever his other political allies are, Councilman Lupino isn't going to vote for anything that teachers' unions oppose -- Lupino, for example, was the only vote against a resolution asking the Cranston School Committee to negotiate a freeze in step increases in their next contract -- and in Rhode Island, things that teachers' unions oppose usually include any changes to geographic-monopoly district management of public education.

  • I will believe that Ward 2 Councilman Emilio Navarro's decision-making involves some consideration beyond take-down-the-Republican-Mayor, when some evidence of a different motivation shows itself in the public record, e.g. voting for "structural reforms" like repeal of the Caruolo Act or opposing binding arbitration even when Mayor Fung supports these positions too.

  • How about Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria? He made the party-discipline "it's Dem-Councilors, and not the Mayor, who run this city" vote against the initial police contract, but also voted against binding arbitration and in favor of repealing Caruolo -- but that was when he was connected more tightly than he is now to the statehouse leadership. How he votes now that the party has changed its position on him is a bit of a question mark.

  • Newly-elected Ward 1 Councilman Steven Stycos earned a reputation for giving the issues serious study and a fair hearing while serving as the School Committeeman from Ward 1, but he has already expressed skepticism about supporting a Mayoral Academy, suggesting that, at least initially, he is being guided by the "progressive" policy biases which tend to marginalize any structure for public education other than direct operation of schools by traditional district-level bureaucracies.

  • Finally, there is Ward 3 Councilman Paul Archetto. He voted yes on the police contract, yes on opposing binding arbitration, but no on repealing Caruolo. He certainly doesn't seem to be playing the same political game that the other Democrats are playing (for instance, he has proposed himself as a leadership alternative to either Navarro or Lupino), and could be convinced to support ed reform policies on their merits.
The point of all of this is that expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?

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December 22, 2010

A Possibility of New Precedent Affecting the Cranston West Banner

Carroll Andrew Morse

Would there be room in the public sphere -- specifically, within the the Cranston West High School cafeteria auditorium -- for a banner beginning with the words "Heavenly Father", if the most recent Establishment Clause precedent issued by the United States Supreme Court were to say that a relevant lower court decision was flawed, because...

The court’s decision continues a troubling development in our Establishment Clause cases -- the use of a “reasonable observer” who is increasingly hostile to religious symbols in the public sphere and who parses relevant context and history to find governmental endorsement of religion. Despite assurance from the Supreme Court that the Establishment Clause does not require us to “purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes in the religious,” , the court’s “reasonable observer” seems intent on doing just that...

In my view, the court’s application of the endorsement test is incorrect to the extent it: (1) effectively imposed a presumption of unconstitutionality on religious symbols in the public sphere; (2) employed a “reasonable observer” who ignored certain facts of the case and instead drew unsupported and quite odd conclusions; and (3) incorrectly focused on the religious nature of the crosses themselves, instead of the message they convey.

According to this rationale, it is not obvious that the banner should be removed.

The passage above, however, is not a controlling Supreme Court precedent. It comes from the opening of a dissenting opinion issued this past Monday in the 10th Circuit case of American Atheists, Inc. v. Duncan, which considered the permissibility of roadside crosses placed as memorials by the Utah State Troopers association. Eugene Volokh, uberblogger and UCLA law professor with significant expertise in First Amendment issues, believes that there is a strong possibility that the US Supreme Court will take Atheists v. Duncan, and that at least five Justices lean towards an opinion in line with the dissent above. Volokh notes, for example, that in a recent Establishment Clause case, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote on the Court, wrote that...

The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.
Now, there are significant differences between the Utah and Cranston cases that should not be discounted; in the Utah case the government is not directly putting up memorials, it is allowing another organization to put them in a public space, while in Cranston, the city government is directly responsible for choosing what is displayed. Still, since a lasting legal resolution in Cranston may not be possible until the disposition of Atheists v. Duncan is final, the prudent course of action with regards to the Cranston West banner may be to put off immediate further action, until the Supremes have their say on the Utah memorials.

November 18, 2010

Foretelling the Future in Cranston

Justin Katz

Steven Frias, a Steve Laffey ally of old and author of a book on Cranston's political history, relates the origin of school committees' authority to negotiate contracts (even though they can't tax to pay for them) and binding arbitration for police and fire. Sadly, there are some discouraging parallels to our proximate future:

The leader of the state association of firefighters pledged to "mount a lobbying campaign for compulsory binding arbitration that will shake the foundations of the state capitol." In 1968, police officers and firefighters descended upon the State House to support binding arbitration for police and firefighter unions.

In response, the General Assembly passed the desired legislation over the near-unanimous objections of municipal officials, who said that binding arbitration would take away the ability to set tax rates from elected officials and from average citizens at town financial meetings. But a compliant Republican governor, John Chafee, signed the bills into law with no formal explanation while his spokesman suggested that binding arbitration should be "given a try."

With binding arbitration came longevity bonuses, minimum manning, and lifetime healthcare benefits regardless of age of retirement. No doubt, some of the usual suspects are hoping that the late governor's son will oversee a repeat of the process for teachers across the state, although they've already got most of those benefits, so the objective is to build a firewall around them. Or at least we can hope that their objective doesn't go beyond that.

June 3, 2010

Allan Fung to Seek Second Term as Mayor of Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung announced last evening that he will seek a second term as Mayor. After he made his formal announcement, I had the opportunity to ask him a couple of quick questions...

Anchor Rising: Given your two-year track record, and what you'd like to accomplish, what's the reason people should vote for you to be Mayor of Cranston again?

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung: "We've gotten a lot done in the short year-and-a-half that we've been in office, getting hard concessions from the unions, not only in monetary savings to the tune of about 12 million dollars from all of the bargaining units, but also structural changes, stuff that's being talked about in every city and town in Rhode Island, from pensions and co-share increases to healthcare buybacks...I want to make sure that we have fiscal stability for generations to come..." (Audio, 1:00 min)

AR: At the state level, the magic word often being thrown around is "regionalization". What does that mean to you?

AF: "I am a strong supporter of a lot of consolidation issues. Actually, we've done a lot of consolidation in the short time I've been in office. I've joined a healthcare collaborative that's saved the cities hundreds of thousands of dollars on our healthcare administrative costs. I've been working with the city of Warwick on other types of consolidation of different departments that make sense for us..." (Audio, 1:30 min)

AR: Your two years as Mayor seem not to have produced a high-profile, establishment candidate on the Democratic side, at least not anyone who is admitting to it right now. Any comment on that?

AF: "The voters have a very big choice. They can vote for someone who has been here, leading in difficult times, not only in difficult budgetary times but also during the time of the floods...or we can go back to the old way..." (Audio, 0:52 min)

April 13, 2010

Budgeting Disconnect Identified: the Fallacy of "Underfunding"

Monique Chartier

... but not the usual fallacy that inevitably leads to comical yard signs like "Save our Schools" when contracts are up for re-negotiation.

Yesterday, during the last hour of the WPRO Morning News with John Depetro, Cranston School Committee member Frank Lombardi called in to defend the actions of himself and certain other committee members in "solving" the $9 million school budget deficit by cutting sports and other programs. After some ... er, frank observations by the host, they got down to brass tacks. Mr. Lombardi pointed to the accomplishment of the school committee in cutting $2 million from the budget. John pointed out with some exasperation that the shortfall was $9 million, to which Mr. Lombardi replied

It was not a $9 million shortfall. We were underfunded.

Sorry, no. Respectfully, this is a major misapprehension, though one shared with many other school committee members around the state. It is the city council, the body legally vested with the ability to tax, which determines the amount by which the school budget will be funded. It is, therefore, the city council (and, ultimately, the taxpayer) which decides whether the school budget will be "underfunded" or "overfunded". From the perspective of the school committee, the school budget is simply funded; it then crafts the budget on the basis of that number. A school committee which decides that the budget is "underfunded" and acts accordingly has not only stepped way beyond its legal purview but has placed itself in a position where it will be compelled to choose among nothing but terrible solutions to right the budget.

Lastly, as the matter of "under" versus "over" funding as been raised, on a statewide perspective, in view of the fact that teacher salaries in Rhode Island are in the top 20% while student achievement is in the bottom 20%, it is clear that school budgets around the state have been over rather than under funded. This can undoubtedly be traced in part back to many other school committee members who, like Mr. Lombardi, have an inaccurate grasp of the scope of the otherwise vital role that they fulfil.

April 8, 2010

The Union Does School Administration

Justin Katz

It was hard not to give some credit to the union-run New England Laborers/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy when it gave some of its money back to the town to maintain sports programs. Of course, one wondered why it would have extra money — charter schools aren't fully private schools — but the sentiment wasn't without its noble tinge. Well, Cranston School Committee member Stephen Stycos says there's more to the story, and as usual, it begins with an apparent conflict of interest:

I questioned the change and argued that if the Laborers charter school had $193,840 for the union, it should also give $193,840 to the Cranston public schools. [Michael] Traficante, who chairs the charter-school board of directors and the Cranston School Committee, and is an employee of the Laborers union, countered that the former superintendent promised the union would only have to pay for the "construction craft laborers instructors" for the school's first five years.

And here are some of the results:

Mr. Traficante, however, said the Laborers charter school wanted to help with Cranston's financial woes and came forward with a transfer of $187,218. In response to questioning from several School Committee members, we discovered that this "gift" was the state's reimbursement for special-education services already paid by the Cranston public schools. Had the charter school kept the money, it would have been paid twice for the same special-education services — once by its partner, the Cranston Public Schools, and once by the State of Rhode Island. Since Cranston pays for the special-education services, Cranston should automatically receive the money. ...

(The construction craft laborers instructors, however, who are hired by the union, receive a school-year wage and benefit package equal to $97,751, while a comparable technical assistant at Cranston's vocational school earns $45,870 in wages and benefits.)

April 1, 2010

The Two Basic Solutions

Justin Katz

Two approaches to returning services to Cranston schools have emerged, and it's conceivable that they highlight the natural line dividing all various budgetary disputes at the town level:

[Mike] Stenhouse's admittedly "more aggressive" stance on political issues caused a rift this week with an earlier local partner, BASICS (Benefiting All Students In Cranston Schools), a group that bills itself as a "blame-free" organization looking for practical solutions to Cranston's financial crisis.

On one side are folks who've identified the ever-growing tab for union personnel as the culprit in stealing the services that we once expected away from our students. On the other side are folks who think that if we just raise a little more money everything can go back to the way it once was. Some (as in Tiverton) see taxes as the most expedient route. Some (apparently like the BASICS group) want to exact a voluntary tax supplement.

Anchor Rising readers know where I stand. I simply don't think union bullying and scheming should continue to be rewarded.

March 27, 2010

Transferring Public Responsibility to Public Charity

Justin Katz

This is a positive development, for the short-term, but it should be considered a short-term fix before turning around, rather than a short-term transition toward something new in the future:

An $88,241 donation from the New England Laborers'/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy, a public charter school, "will just about restore every program except freshman baseball, basketball and football," said Schools Supt. Peter L. Nero, repeating what has become a familiar theme: to balance its budget, the district was forced to cut the same programs it had vigorously defended in court as part of an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking additional funding from the city.

The donation, which the charter school's board of directors is expected to approve at its next meeting, would come from the school's roughly $372,000 surplus, said School Committee Chairman Michael A.Traficante, who is also chairman of the charter school's board of directors and works for the New England Laborers' union as director of governmental affairs.

"We are buying some time for these nonprofit groups to start raising money," Traficante said.

Generally, I'm for increasing the role of charity and private donations, but if this change in funding for Cranston public school sports becomes a trend, it will simply represent a transfer of the "extras" that once were considered intrinsic parts of public education to voluntary support while the unions' cash cow maintains its mandatory tax-based flow of revenue. It would be different if residents could choose to give cash for sports, books, programs, and so on, while declining to donate to higher remuneration for the adults who staff the facilities. However, the route for achieving that balance will still be the circuitous one of elections and contract negotiations over years.

Moreover, the parents and students who utilize the sports services will continue to receive a relatively good deal in the cost of their activities. They'll therefore be less inclined to join reformers who wish to change the political regime in order to redirect public funds away from lavish remuneration for adults.

Public education in Rhode Island is beginning to look like a bait-and-switch. Over some decades, we've been sold on funding public schools through tax dollars because they build community, ensure well-rounded young citizens, keep kids occupied and off the streets, and so on. Now that the bill has become outrageous, the activities that do those things and offer substantial opportunities to those who cannot afford private school will be foisted back onto communities to fund via other means.

March 2, 2010

Avoid Long Term Ramifications: RIIL Should Deny Cranston Team Consolidation

Marc Comtois

Cranston's recent proposal to merge school sports is currently being weighed by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. John Gilooly explains why allowing such a merger would set a bad precedent:

The problem I see is that as an association of individual high schools, if the Principals Committee allows two high schools from the same city to combine teams as a cost-saving measure, it would be hard pressed in the future to prohibit schools from two different local governments to combine some teams to save money.

Hopefully, the people in Scituate and Smithfield or Middletown and Newport never think this way, but if the precedent is set, how could the Interscholastic League not allow neighboring small communities, as well as other large cities, to save money in hard financial times by combining teams?

The result would be fewer opportunities for state’s high school students to reap the whole spectrum of benefits that come from playing for a high school varsity athletic team.

That goes against the 78-year mission of the R.I. Interscholastic League.

Trying to make the best of a bad situation by allowing team consolidation for the purpose of giving more kids the opportunity to play--while noble sounding--is a flawed, short-term fix. For while this something-is-better-than-nothing solution would save a few sports in one community, the long-term ramifications would be detrimental to student athletes in Rhode Island. As Gilooly explains, this seemingly pragmatic approach, if authorized by the RIIL, could be used by communities across the state to justify cutting and combining sports, which would mean fewer spots for student athletes.

Such unintended consequences stemming from a purported fix in school athletics isn't unprecedented: the Education policy known as Title IX--which seeks to equal the playing field for female and male participation in school sports--is often used by schools to justify cutting boys sports to help maintain that equity. It's easier to cut men's baseball at Providence College, for instance, than to add and fund a new sport for women athletes, you see. The goal may be admirable, but there's no guarantee that the means to achieving will be quite what we'd hoped.

Finally, when viewed from a political angle, the RIIL shouldn't bail out Cranston for its self-made budgetary and fiscal problems. It's up to Cranston parents and voters to exercise their power and remind the politicians of what the priorities should be, one way or another.

January 30, 2010

The Usual Ommission from School Budget Fights

Justin Katz

Anchor Rising readers shouldn't have any trouble guessing (let alone discerning) what's missing from this report out of Cranston:

Wednesday night, on what was the first chance for the public to speak on the proposed budget, students, coaches and parents flocked to Cranston West's auditorium, where the School Committee budget hearing was moved to accommodate the expected crowd.

Many donned team jerseys (revealing a clear home-team advantage) and defended the value of sports and the added push that rivalry brings.

"Don't expect us to give up without fighting for what we have worked so hard to build up," Deanna Archetto, a senior who swims for Cranston West, told the School Committee.

"There have to be other options that don't involve chopping from the bottom," she said.

The $1.1-million in proposed cuts — which include the elementary school enrichment program along with strings, band and chorus, following the recommendations of a court-ordered performance audit — follow the state Supreme Court ruling last month that found the district ignored the financial reality, continued to overspend its budget and then sued the city for additional money.

For readers who may be new to the site, I offer this clue:

At a time when the executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island is playing games with an application for nine-figures of federal assistance so as to keep his union's members above accountability,* residents who wish to protest cuts to sports and other services should target their ire where it belongs.

* Which is not to say that I support the continued federal takeover of our educational system. I'm merely pointing to the clear priorities of the teachers' union.

January 29, 2010

Cranston School Cuts

Marc Comtois

Cutting or consolidating sports programs is grabbing the headlines as Cranston tries to deal with it's school budget deficit, but other programs are in danger as well. It's not just the jocks.

The $1.1-million in proposed cuts — which include the elementary school enrichment program along with strings, band and chorus, following the recommendations of a court-ordered performance audit — follow the state Supreme Court ruling last month that found the district ignored the financial reality, continued to overspend its budget and then sued the city for additional money.

Now, the district must repay the city some $8.4 million from loans for the 2007-08 school year, while trying to close the projected $1-million deficit for the current school year.

People are understandably upset at the school committee:
Accusations flew back and forth during the four-hour meeting with students blaming the School Committee members for ducking their obligations and making the students pay for the consequences. School Committee members pointed their fingers at the City Council for level-funding the School Department while increasing funding to other departments by as much as 11 and 12 percent.
But that's a tough sell when it was the school committee that negotiated a teacher contract containing, on average, 12% yearly salary increases for teachers on the "step program" (according to an OSPRI analysis). And it's even more interesting when the school administration and school committee members try to shirk their responsibility:
“Again, we don’t want basic either,” said School Supt. Peter Nero. “No one does.”

“Someone else made the decision,” Nero said, referring to the auditors, “and we have no choice but to follow it.”

“Understand, what the Supreme Court has said: in 2007, we should have cut [the enrichment program], and we didn’t,” School Committee member Frank S. Lombardi said. “We should have cut the bands and string, and we didn’t. We should have cut 25 percent of [the sports budget], and we didn’t. So, we held the line for three years for you guys, and now it’s ‘do or else.’”

Wow. "Held the line" for the kids...how noble. You didn't hold the line when it came to contract negotiations, though, did you? Let's hope Cranston voters remember who is truly responsible for this mess come November.

September 29, 2009

What One City Council Thinks of Binding Arbitration for Teachers Contracts

Carroll Andrew Morse

On Monday night, the Cranston City Council considered a resolution sponsored by Mayor Allan Fung opposing a proposed change to Rhode Island law that would require binding arbitration to occur when a school committee and a teachers' union were unable to agree upon a contract.

During the public comment phase of the meeting, Dan Beardsley of the Rhode Island league of Cities and Towns gave a short history of the evolution of current binding arbitration legislation, explaining how it has arisen as the union alternative to "permanent contract" legislation -- which Mr. Beardsley believes did not have the votes to pass the Rhode Island House in the 2009 session. He also noted that "22 communities already passed this resolution" and that he expects 14 more to, before the legislature reconvenes late in October, possibly with a binding arbitration bill on its agenda.

Cranston City Councilman Anthony Lupino spoke at length against the resolution, arguing that a binding arbitration system that was well thought-out could have a positive impact, if it for example banned teacher strikes and required consideration of the public interest of the taxpayer. Apparently, the people of Rhode Island have to give something up in order to have their interests officially be taken into account when Rhode Island government makes fiscal decisions.

In response, Mayor Fung argued that arbitrators do not plan for the long-term health of cities and towns in their processes. Though I agree that this is a legitimate concern, I would hope the Mayor and other RI officials would take a broader-than-technocratic view on a matter like this, as the idea that decisions about the major cost (personnel) of the major budget item in most cities and towns should be made by a body that is directly accountable to the people is as at least as important as the idea of effective planning.

Councilman Terence Livingston indicated his openness to supporting or opposing the resolution, saying that he didn't know "how to make a reasoned decision about whether to accept this or whether to reject this" without hearing further testimony. Five minutes later, he voted in favor of the resolution. Council President John Lanni must have been really convincing in his short statement in support of the resolution, offered immediately after Councilman Livingston spoke.

Councilman Robert Pelletier also spoke briefly in favor of the resolution. Councilor Michelle Bergin-Andrews questioned whether binding arbitration might actually save the city money.

In the end the resolution passed by a vote of 7-2, with Councilmen Anthony Lupino and Emilio Navarro the only votes against. Evidently, Finance Committee Chairman Navarro doesn't believe that binding arbitration would be a contributor to the "structural deficits" that he has in the past expressed concern about.

September 24, 2009

Whither School Committees?

Carroll Andrew Morse

At Mayor Allan Fung's town hall meeting last evening on city issues in Cranston, there was much emphasis on the school committee as the area of city government most in need of fixing. You can hear some of the discussion for yourself, by clicking on the links below…

Is Cranston the only community where there is a growing interest in serious school committee reform, or is this sentiment shared around the state?

July 17, 2009

Making Up Time in Cranston

Justin Katz

Tim White's got another video of employee malfeasance with taxpayer funded time:

The video shows the janitorial office at Cranston's Western Hills Middle School from the view of a hidden camera looking down at a time clock used by school custodians to punch in and out of their shifts. The first minute and twelve seconds of the tape are uneventful. Then, a voice off camera says, "I'm gonna bang these out."

A school department worker then steps into frame. He is identified by school officials as Neal Emmett, the custodial foreman of Western Hills Middle School. He takes a time card from the top of the clock. Emmett then removes the shell of the clock and manipulates the gears to advance the time from 8:35 to roughly 9:00. Walking off camera, he takes a time card from a rack and stamps it with the adjusted time.

The inference is that the custodial crew is leaving early and advancing the machine to capture more hours, and the "bang this out" phrase, the practiced movements of the foreman, and the presence of the camera itself all suggest that it was a regular act. The requested budget for 2008-2009 (PDF) included $278,169 for custodian salaries in Emmett's school, with another $2,500 to cover Saturday detentions. I don't see any indication of an overtime budget. Although, it appears that Emmett's scheduled pay rate for 2008 was $36,629 (PDF), but that he took home $43,021 (PDF).

July 15, 2009

Arbitration Is a Union Game

Justin Katz

Anybody who still believes that public sector union arbitration isn't the unions' playroom should take a moment to glance toward Cranston. The contract between the city and the Teamsters (PDF) contains the following language:

The City agrees to offer a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan for each member of the Union and his family. Each employee shall pay a percentage of the monthly working rate for the City for the plan chosen, deducted bi-weekly from the employee's paycheck. The co-share percentage will be 10% for Year 1 (FY 7/1/05 to 6/30/06), 15% in Year 2 (FY 7/1/06 to 6/30/07), and 20% in Year 3 (FY 7/1/07 to 6/30/08) of this agreement. The PPO plan will include the following: $10 co-pays for office visits, specialists, and urgent care visits and a $50 co-pay for emergency room visits each occurrence.

That contract expired at the end of June 2008, and as anybody should have expected (and the union probably did), the city continued to adjust healthcare co-shares in accord with rising prices. The union filed a grievance claiming that the dollar amount is what should carry through — which certainly conflicts with the reason that elected representatives have been negotiating for percentages — and the arbitrator who handled the grievance gave the win to the union. Despite the absence of any dollar-amount language in the contract. Despite the fact that the contract was no longer in effect.

And so, the city finds itself spending scarce funds on legal expenses to defend against union-fantasy-land justice. I say it's time to meet lunacy with resolve: If a union is going to delay contract resolution and tie the city up in court, anyway, when times are tight, fire its members and rehire.

June 18, 2009

Jim Quinlan: Another $25,000 Wasted by the Cranston School Department

Engaged Citizen

According to a Projo article by Randy Edgar:

The [Cranston] School Department will pay outgoing Supt. M. Richard Scherza $25,000 this summer to work as a consultant and help with the transition to a new superintendent, according to an agreement signed last month.

Scherza will work on an as-needed basis during July and August, providing "technical assistance" and helping in areas such as community and government relations.

In a city whose school department is struggling, to say the least, to balance a budget filled with years of giveaways and mismanagement, it is curious that the School Committee would vote unanimously to continue to keep Mr. Scherza on board on an "as needed basis."

Budget session after budget session has been filled with program cuts and layoffs — directly affecting our children. EPIC, middle school sports, guidance vounselors, and teaching positions have all been on the table, yet the committee has found $25,000 to pay Mr. Scherza more than he was making while employed by the department.

If in-coming Superintendent Peter Nero was not qualified to sit in the big boy chair (after 3 years of working directly under Scherza), the committee should have not rushed to promote him in one week. If he is qualified, then the elected representatives should insist that he does the job.

I brought this concern to a School Committee member who told me that "because this was a personnel matter we could not discuss it." I would like to know since when an independent contractor is a personnel member of the School Department.

We deserve to know what Mr. Scherza's contract says and what his duties will be. I am not ready yet to deem this decision as corrupt, but it is certainly a poor business decision and another example of the School Committee's lack of leadership.

Jim Quinlan is the chairman of the Cranston GOP.

May 13, 2009

Closing Cranston's Budget Hole, By Saying Let's Pretend It's Not There

Carroll Andrew Morse

Randal Edgar of the Projo captures both the tone and content of last night's Cranston City Council meeting, where the Council seems to have decided how they will "close" Cranston's budget deficit: by assuming union concessions that have not yet been obtained…

The City Council charted a financial course Tuesday that differs sharply from the wishes of Mayor Allan W. Fung, approving a fiscal 2010 budget that restores more than 40 jobs, reduces a projected tax hike, levy increase and counts on more than $2.2 million in not-yet negotiated union concessions to make the numbers balance....the Republican mayor called the budget irresponsible, saying before the meeting that it makes no sense to add $2.6 million to the personnel costs he proposed when the council is also reducing tax revenue and counting on concessions that may not materialize.
This decision by the City Council to assume non-existent as of yet concessions was made, of course, after they refused to accept a police contract that included $1.4 million in concessions over three years.

The Council approved the final budget by a vote of 7-2 with Councilmen Mario Aceto and Robert Pelletier voting against. I asked Counciman Pelletier the reason for his vote, and he answered that he did not support the tax increase contained in the budget.

Edgar's article makes mention of the most contentious exchange of the evening, where City Finance Emilio Navarro expressed skepticism about using $1.7 million in Federal stimulus money targeted towards education to compensate for reduced state education aid:

The most heated debate last night centered on the school budget, the one area on which Fung was allowed to comment because he was asking the council to approve an amendment. Fung asked for a $4 million increase for the schools, in part because he had made an error in calculating the minimum city contribution to the schools, which is $86.4 million. The actual city contribution will be $87.4 million because Fung had pledged to provide $1 million more than required, a plan to which the council agreed.

The total school allocation is $122.6 million when state and federal dollars are counted, but councilman Emilo L. Navarro, chairman of the council Finance Committee, questioned Fung's plan to use $1.7 million in federal stimulus money reach that figure.

Navarro asked Fung repeatedly if he was using one-time money to fund the schools. Fung replied that the issue is whether or not the money counts toward the base budget figure that determines what the city must provide in local dollars each year. Since $1.7 million does not count toward the base figure, the city is not obligated to provide the money again, he said.

May 11, 2009

Housing Offenders

Justin Katz

Focusing mainly on the local controversy, journalist Randal Edgar didn't ask why this should be true:

Dennis B. Langley, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rhode Island, which runs Harrington Hall, played down the concerns, saying the shelter, which opened as a permanent center in 2003, has housed sex offenders for years. The only difference now, he said, is that more are being sent there.

"We have a large number of sex offenders throughout the state. We have never seen as many," he said.

It could be that offenders are attracted to the state of Rhode Island by legal loopholes that allow them to remain anonymous while they appeal their convictions as well as the risk tier at which they're classified. The process of appeals can take years. The process of closing the loophole is also likely to take years, inasmuch as the General Assembly has held for study a bill to close it. Also held for study is a bill requiring "sex offenders temporarily living in Rhode Island" to register with police within their first two weeks here.

In the meantime, we can only marvel at the lives that our guests lead:

... While sex offenders who have been released from prison might live in any given neighborhood, local residents say housing offenders at the shelter is different, because they are required to leave by 7 a.m. each day and cannot return until 6 p.m.

"It's just too much," Bergin-Andrews said.

Langley, however, said the likelihood of repeat offenses is small. People staying at the shelter are given bus passes and routinely ride to Providence shelters during the day to get free meals, he said.

Generally speaking, Rhode Island is a good place to be if you've got no place to be.

May 4, 2009

Government as Pension Program

Justin Katz

Here's an eye-popper: Cranston spends more than a fifth of its total budget on pensions (not including teachers). Nine municipalities spend over 10%.

While Rhode Island's political leaders wrestle with state pension reform, there's another big pension headache out there — the soaring cost of municipal pensions.

A new study by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reports that the amount of money that communities spend on pension costs has increased nearly 50 percent in the past five years, from $101 million in 2004 to $149 million in the current fiscal year ending June 30.

But the raw amount, the exclusion of teachers, and the addition of state employees is not all:

The study found that locally administered pension plans were able to fund only an average of 45 percent of their obligations as of June 30, 2006, with an unfunded liability of $1.6 billion. That encompasses quite a wide range, from a Coventry police pension plan that is only 7.9-percent funded, to the Jamestown police pension plan, which is over-funded, at 123.9 percent.

In other words, as much as they're spending, many cities and towns ought to be devoting more resources to pensions.

That's if you look at it as a funding matter. If you look at it as a practical and moral matter, they ought to be devoting less to pensions. It's time to bring public workers back to the real world.

April 22, 2009

Meanwhile, in Providence...

Carroll Andrew Morse

Combining Randal Edgar's story in today's Projo on the likely next step that follows the inability of the parties(*) in Cranston to agree upon a new police contract via negotiation…

After watching a tentative contract go down to defeat, the police officers union is taking its case to a new venue that could ultimately cost taxpayers far more — binding arbitration…

The [rejected] contract, retroactive to July 1, 2008, provided no raises — apart from longevity increases — until January 2010, when officers would have received a 1.5 percent raise. They would also receive a 2.95 percent raise at the start of year three.

…with some of the details from Philip Marcelo's story in yesterday's paper on the state of affairs in Providence between Mayor, City Council and Police Department…
The City Council, which has cast a critical eye over Mayor David N. Cicilline’s spending choices in light of a deficit approaching $16 million this year, has more to consider in its opposition to pay raises for high-ranking police officers and the mayor’s hiring of a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm…

The council maintains that it never authorized Cicilline’s administration to give pay raises retroactive to two years to the officers, some of whom are now retired. Cicilline’s administration has said that the retroactive pay for the nonunion officers matches those awarded to police union members in arbitration in the last fiscal year.

…again raises the question of why an 18-month pay-freeze, with no retroactive make-up in the future, is being considered as something less than a real concession by several members of the City Council in Cranston.

(*) And just so there's no confusion, I am including the City Council in the definition of "parties" in this post; there was some concern at Monday's meeting that the meaning of "parties" didn't include the City Council in the context of contracts with the City.

April 21, 2009

Cranston City Council Rejects Police Contract

Carroll Andrew Morse

The full Cranston City Council has rejected a modified version of the tentative agreement reached between the administration of Mayor Allan Fung and the city's police officers union. Several amendments were made to the original agreement and the Mayor and members of his administration discussed the changes with the Council in an executive session that lasted for about an hour last evening, but the Council still rejected the contract by a vote of 6-3.

According to Mayor Fung (audio), his administration must now proceed with layoffs in order to rectify Cranston's financial situation.

When asked if the Council views layoffs as the next step, Council President John Lanni (audio) left the door open for further negotiations. Asked if the healthcare issue was the primary "structural" issue that the Council was concerned about, President Lanni cited longevity pay as an example of another area that could be considered for modification.

Several council members also expressed concerns about proposed changes involving departmental operations during the meeting.

Randal Edgar has a good summary of the various issues involved in today's Projo. One issue that is still not clear to me is the claim that most of the savings in this contract comes from not filling vacancies, when the union has (had?) agreed to an 18-month pay freeze with no retroactive make-up down the line. That sounds like a real concession to me, despite Council member Michelle Bergin-Andrews characterization of the deal with the union as involving something less, what she called "what they like to call concessions".

Councilman Terrence Livingston explained his vote, in part, by saying that that was "the first contract that came up during this bad time", neglecting the laborer's contract ratified in December (after the crash of the financial world that brought about the bad times) where a 12 month pay-freeze was deemed adequate for passage.

And in explaining his version of what "structural change" might involve, Councilman Emilio Navarro mentioned 20% co-shares for new hires only, an apparent change from his previous position of 20% across-the-board, though it is not clear that 20% for new hires would save more money than the across-the-board co-share the union agreed to.

Ultimately, the citizens of Cranston have to decide if this all makes sense.

Seven Council members explained their votes to the public before casting them. Speaking in favor of the contract were…

Speaking against were…

Cranston City Council Rejects Police Contract

Carroll Andrew Morse

The full Cranston City Council has rejected a modified version of the tentative agreement reached between the administration of Mayor Allan Fung and the city's police officers union. Several amendments were made to the original agreement and the Mayor and members of his administration discussed the changes with the Council in an executive session that lasted for about an hour last evening, but the Council still rejected the contract by a vote of 6-3.

According to Mayor Fung (audio), his administration must now proceed with layoffs in order to rectify Cranston's financial situation.

When asked if the Council views layoffs as the next step, Council President John Lanni (audio) left the door open for further negotiations. Asked if the healthcare issue was the primary "structural" issue that the Council was concerned about, President Lanni cited longevity pay as an example of another area that could be considered for modification.

Several council members also expressed concerns about proposed changes involving departmental operations during the meeting.

Randal Edgar has a good summary of the various issues involved in today's Projo. One issue that is still not clear to me is the claim that most of the savings in this contract comes from not filling vacancies, when the union has (had?) agreed to an 18-month pay freeze with no retroactive make-up down the line. That sounds like a real concession to me, despite Council member Michelle Bergin-Andrews characterization of the deal with the union as involving something less, what she called "what they like to call concessions".

Councilman Terrence Livingston explained his vote, in part, by saying that that was "the first contract that came up during this bad time", neglecting the laborer's contract ratified in December (after the crash of the financial world that brought about the bad times) where a 12 month pay-freeze was deemed adequate for passage.

And in explaining his version of what "structural change" might involve, Councilman Emilio Navarro mentioned 20% co-shares for new hires only, an apparent change from his previous position of 20% across-the-board, though it is not clear that 20% for new hires would save more money than the across-the-board co-share the union agreed to.

Ultimately, the citizens of Cranston have to decide if this all makes sense.

Seven Council members explained their votes to the public before casting them. Speaking in favor of the contract were…

Speaking against were…

April 17, 2009

Chaos in Cranston Continues

Carroll Andrew Morse

Entering last night's Cranston City Finance Committee meeting, both Mayor Allan Fung and the members of the city's police officer's union had hopes that a set of proposed changes to the recently-tabled tentative agreement would produce a contract acceptable to the Finance Committee. However, for reasons that are not fully understood, the Committee has declined to take any action on the proposed changes.

When Police Union President Steven Antonucci rose to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, he was informed by Finance Chair Emilio Navarro that changes to the contract were not part of the evening's discussion.

After several other public comments, the Finance Committee voted unanimously to send the contract without changes to the full Council, along with a recommendation not to pass it. Apparently, amendments will not be considered at the full City Council meeting (next Monday). The decision to proceed in this manner seems to have been made in an executive session whose minutes have been sealed.

Both Mayor Fung (audio) and Mr. Antonucci (audio) were surprised by this outcome and unsure as to why amendments to the existing agreement couldn't at least be deliberated in public at this time.

If there's not some kind of political game going on, then the Democrats on the Cranston City Council are taking the Rhode Island governing attitude of "there's nothing we can do; the rules require us to act in strange and counterproductive ways" to bold new heights.

Finally, there was one unsolicited comment offered by a member of the public (audio) that seemed to pretty well sum up the feeling in the room after the meeting was (rapidly) adjourned.

April 3, 2009

More Savings in Cranston?

Carroll Andrew Morse

There was one bit of news that emerged from last night's Cranston City Council meeting on FY2010 budget. Speaking during the public comment section, Cranston firefighters union President Paul Valletta stated that his union has a deal on the table with Mayor Allan Fung's administration that involves $350,000 in concessions for this fiscal year and a total of $3.8 million in concessions over 28 months.

Hopefully, $3.8 million will be a big enough number for the Council to consider "substantial".

Mr. Valletta's remarks on the potential savings, and his exchange with City Council President John Lanni, can be heard here.

April 2, 2009

What Difference Could $460,000 Make?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Speaking to Cranston Herald reporter Laura Lee Costello, Cranston City Council Finance Chairman Emilio Navarro had this to say about the projected savings in the police union contract negotiated by Mayor Allan Fung…

Navarro said the mayor’s contentions regarding the police agreement were baseless. He argued that the savings of $460,000 were not substantial enough to affect the budget and said one union’s agreements shouldn’t affect another.

“One thing that was very clear was that the savings of about $400,000 doesn’t make a dent in the budget having almost an $8 million deficit,” he said Tuesday.

The police department accounts for approximately $20 million out of a $230 million dollar city budget. Back out about $30 million in debt payments, and you’re talking about 10% of the operating budget.

Earlier in the article, Ms. Costello sets Cranston’s deficit at $7.4 million. Put $2.1 million back into the budget from the restored revenue sharing approved by the RI House last night and -- if you could get all departments to accept the same level of savings the police department has (or maybe had) -- you’d be $4.6 million of the way to closing a $5.3 million dollar deficit.

I don’t think that that falls under the category of “insubstantial” savings. Or are there people out there who want the entire city deficit to be made up within the police department?

March 31, 2009

Councilman Emilio Navarro on the Cranston Police Contract

Carroll Andrew Morse

Readers may be aware that I have been somewhat critical of the Cranston City Council's tabling of the police union contract recently negotiated by Mayor Allan Fung. Since I believe it's flat-out wimpy to be in a room with officials you have recently criticized without offering them a chance to respond, after last night's City Council meeting, I asked several of the Councilmen if they'd be interested in answering an open-ended question on the subject of the police contract.

Ward 2 Councilman and City Council Finance Chair Emilio Navarro was willing to offer the following detailed response…

Cranston City Councilman Emilio Navarro: One of the main issues is the holiday mandate. The proposal is for some up-front cash to be given up on 3 holidays. It is an immediate savings, but the Mayor also agreed with the police union to give them 48 hours of comp time for those holidays, a total of 16 hours for each one. So we’re eventually going to have to pay that comp time down the road, 48 hours for 148 police officers. There's an immediate giveback from the union, but eventually the city is going to have to pay it back.

There are also raises in the contract. There’s a raise in the second year, which is 1.5% and a raise in the third year which is 2.9% if I’m not mistaken. A big part of the savings that the Mayor is touting in the police contract is 1.2 million dollars of vacancies. Right now there are 5 existing vacancies, with a potential of 5 more, with police officers that may retire. When you calculate the raises and you calculate the $1.2 million, it all washes out, and you basically have a net savings of about $200,000 overall. There’s also a clothing allowance that the police are giving back in the first year, but that’s the only monies we're getting that don’t involve some kind of payback down the road at the end of the contract.

AR: Do you think there's any merit to the Mayor's position that because last year's council budgeted for a salary freeze, he has to get the concessions?

EN: He could choose to budget it or not, but the bottom line is that Mayor wants to have an agreement with the union where they’re going to agree to freeze five vacancies, or else he says the union will force him to hire 5. Now look at the situation we’re in. We’re in some very, very tough economic times. All he is doing is creating what I’ll call a structural deficit, because those five and up to ten positions carry to the end of the contract and all it’s doing is making the Mayor not have to budget for those positions right now. Obviously, the money is not there. At the end of the contract, the Mayor is saying we can renegotiate the contract, but the union will be coming into negotiations strong with up to 10 vacancies. They’ll be able to say we’ll be able to force you to hire 10. So how are we going to get any givebacks from the union, when we’re negotiating from a weak point?

Continue reading "Councilman Emilio Navarro on the Cranston Police Contract"

Funding Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

At last night's meeting of the Cranston City Council, Mayor Allan Fung offered his budget for fiscal year 2009-2010, and his plans for closing this year's large budget deficit.

Mayor Fung began by relating the budget situation in Cranston to the national and state situaion: "Cranston, like every municipality in the state, is living through an economic crisis unparalelled for our generation".

Turning the focus to more local matters, Mayor Fung outlined the recent history of Cranston's budget issues – union concessions budgeted for but not achieved, a $2.9 million dollar overrun in total expenses and unrealistic expectations for interest income, for starters. The result: a deficit for this fiscal year, from expenses too high plus revenues to low, of about $7.4 million.

The Mayor is proposing two sets of actions to get to the end of this fiscal year: 1) Layoffs over the next several weeks and 2) tapping the rainy day fund for this fiscal year.

The Mayor also provided an update of the status of police union negotiations and other union negotiations in Cranston, outlined his steps on dealing with two drivers of continuing deficits that don't always get the attention they deserve, pension payments and other debt payments, and offered an update on Cranston's never ending battle between the School Committee and the rest of city government.

The bottom line tax number for next year is a 5.46% increase in the City's total tax levy, which will require going beyond this year's tax cap figure of 4.75%. And in summation, "there's no one that's going to bail us out of this crisis ".

Finally, I'll make a special note of one short but important and very fiscally conservative statement made by Mayor Fung.

March 30, 2009

High Budget Noon in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

That's it?!! The meeting just adjourned. Apparently the hearing with public input is not until Thursday.

Mayor Fung will ask for a 5.46% increase in the tax levy, requiring some kind of bypass of the state tax cap, possible because of the probable cut in state aid.

Greetings from the City of Cranston. where Mayor Allan Fung's is presently delivering his FY10 budget address in front of the City Council and several hundred people in the auditorium. I'll let you know if anything exciting happens...

High Budget Noon in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

That's it?!! The meeting just adjourned. Apparently the hearing with public input is not until Thursday.

Mayor Fung will ask for a 5.46% increase in the tax levy, requiring some kind of bypass of the state tax cap, possible because of the probable cut in state aid.

Greetings from the City of Cranston. where Mayor Allan Fung's is presently delivering his FY10 budget address in front of the City Council and several hundred people in the auditorium. I'll let you know if anything exciting happens...

March 27, 2009

A Slightly Longer History of Police Budgets in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Two substantive objections offered in the comments section to my short history of the Cranston Police Department budget were…

  1. The figures for the Napolitano years include some million-dollar-plus temporary "rent" costs associated with the construction of a new police station, and
  2. Napolitano's first police budget was the 3rd year of a contract negotiated by his predecessor (that would be Steve Laffey, for those not paying attention), and therefore can't be held against him.
So here are the police budget numbers again, with the rent item removed, and all of the Laffey contract years (delineated with boldface) plus the year before included...

FY2005Laffey II$17,709,556--
FY2006Laffey III$16,616,502($1,093,054)
FY2007Laffey IV$17,447,623 $831,121
FY2008Napolitano I $18,677,744 $1,230,151
FY2009Napolitano II$19,424,221 $746,447

In FY09 (the "year" that started July 1, 2008), the evil Laffey contract had expired. If the Democratic Mayor/Democratic Council believed that the City had been snookered into a backloaded contract, their hands were free to make the corrections and "fundamental changes" they thought were necessary to get department spending down to levels they thought reasonable. It certainly appears that that's what Mayor Laffey did in the first year of the contract that his administration negotiated, where the amount spent decreased by over 1 million dollars from the previous year.

But the only major adjustment that Mayor Napolitano and the Democratic City Council called for in the FY09 budget was a pay freeze. Mayor Fung has gotten the police union to agree to a pay freeze, plus only a small raise for next fiscal year -- but now the Council and other contract opponents are saying that the pay freeze doesn't really count as savings. That doesn't strike me as wholly consistent. I'd appreciate it if the next commenter who says that "this contract is a giveaway" would explain how an 18 month pay freeze, followed by a small increase after that, plus the increased health care co-shares, all with no retroactivity, is a "giveaway".

If the Democrats on the City Council think that more drastic measures, like layoffs or pay cuts have become necessary, they should inform the public and the Mayor of this. They might also consider providing an explanation of why their eleventh-hour call for "fundamental change" should be seen as anything more than political posturing, when the Democratic Mayor/Democratic Council certainly didn't act during calendar year 2008 as if changing contract terms scheduled to take effect in July of 2008 was a significant priority.

I don't think the Cranston City Council has any better idea of what "fundamental change" is this year than they did last year, when they saw no need to act on the police contract. Maybe the Council's actions are being driven by something that changed between last calendar year and this one; I wonder what that could be?

March 26, 2009

A Short History of Police Budgets in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here are the official budget numbers for the last several years of the operation of the Cranston Police department, plus a column showing the change from the previous year…

FY2006Laffey III $16,616,502--
FY2007Laffey IV $17,536,373 $919,871
FY2008Napolitano I $19,919,454 $2,383,081
FY2009Napolitano II $20,679,721 $760,267

I had a chance for a brief interview with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung yesterday on the subject of the police contract and budget. I asked him about the $400,000 savings he is claiming that the contract he negotiated will save. Since the new contract will covers this fiscal year (FY2009), the $400,000 savings is a savings against the budgeted total. For the subsequent years, Mayor Fung's administration is applying zero-based budgeting analysis, calculating how much it should cost to run the department with a full complement of officers, then factoring in how concessions like the hiring freeze, the 18-month pay freeze, etc. will lower costs.

I asked if there were any concerns about overtime related to the positions left vacant by the hiring freeze, and if it could unexpectedly drive costs up. The Mayor answered that that overtime can be driven by different factors, but that the City has been watching its overtime expenditures, and is assuming they will stay reaonably stable. Finally, I asked about the City Council’s claim that this contract "requires" vacancies to be filled at the end of the term. Mayor Fung said that the rules regarding vacancies at the end of this contract will be no different than the rules in the previous contract.

Returning to the numbers themselves, the largest recent increase by far in the Cranston Police Department budget occurred in Mayor Michael Napolitano's first year, an increase of 2.3 million dollars over the previous year (N.B. see the addendum below for an explanation of this expense). Cranston City Councilmen John Lanni, Anthony Lupino, Terrence Livingston and Emilio Navarro were all on the City Council that approved the 2008 increase that significantly raised the "structural" baseline that they are now expressing concern about. If they had concerns about structural problems being created during the Napolitano administration, they never took a stand on the steps needed to correct them. What could have changed in Cranston, I wonder, to make the Councilmen discover their inner fiscal conservatives?

Unfortunately, this is Cranston as a microcosm of Rhode Island politics. Spend like crazy when it's all one, big happy (Democratic) party. Then blame someone else for not doing enough, when it comes time to correct the problems.

The logic of Democrats in Cranston has been that, without the contentiousness might arise from having a Republican administration deal with unions, they can negotiate deals that deliver qualiy services at reasonable costs. But compare the theory to what actually happened; look at the change in the police department budget in FY2008, under a Democratic Mayor/Democratic council, and look at what is happening now. The Dems here don't really seem to be able to deliver on either half of their promise -- they somehow manage to spend big and create turmoil at the same time.

If this City Council is going to kill this police contract, they need to be specific about the "fundamental changes" they want to see carried out. To borrow the description that Justin recently offered of the state's situation and apply it to the local level, standing around like frozen deer in the midst of a financial crisis isn't sufficient action. What exactly does the council want to see done, to mitigate the structural budget problems that took a mighty big leap under the all-Democratic watch of FY2008?


Commenter Donald Botts makes a fair point explaining the big budget increase in Napolitano year I...

The reason for the huge jump during [Mayor Napolitano's] first term is a $1.2 mil jump in the rent line item. I would assume this can be attributed to the new police station.

March 17, 2009

Chaos in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last evening, the finance committee of the Cranston City Council voted to table the contract negotiated by Mayor Allan Fung with the International Brotherhood of Policemen's Local 301.

According to Mayor Fung, the contract would have saved the city approximately $1.4 million dollars over three years through measures that include not filling vacancies, implementing an 18-month pay freeze, implementing a gradual increase in employee healthcare co-share, eventually to 15%, and exchanging holiday pay for comp time.

  • Mayor Allan Fung presents the contract, Part I
  • Mayor Fung presents the contract, Part II
  • Local 301 President Steven Antonucci speaks in favor of the contract.
  • Steve Bloom, former independent City Council candidate, tells the council either approve this contract, or tell the Mayor an exact figure he needs to try to save.
Several different lines of reasoning were offered over the course of the evening by the finance committee members for their decision not to approve the contract.
  1. A large percentage of the amount saved would come from not filling police department vacancies, but the positions would still exist. Some committee members were concerned that this could trigger a sudden increase in expenses in the future, if the positions are eventually required to be filled. Mayor Fung says in the absence of this agreement, he could be required to budget and fill those positions immediately. (Mayor Fung and Finance Committee Chairman Emilio Navarro discuss the vacancy situation).
  2. Multiple members of the committee seemed to believe that, no matter what else was conceded by the union, the police should be required to pay a 20% co-share for their healthcare. Mayor Fung's response was that a) the value of the negotiated concessions is about equivalent to what a 20% co-share would save and b) based on what comparable communities are paying, if this issue is arbitrated instead of negotiated, it is unlikely that the city will get 20% (City Council President John Lanni, Mayor Fung, and Finance Chair Navarro on co-shares, savings and other contracts).
  3. The contract is automatically reopened, in the event the state requires a 20% co-share in all municipal contracts. The committee was concerned this created too much ambiguity to allow a decision to be made now.
But in the end, the finance committee's collective reasoning boils down to the council not accepting any ol' savings in a contract, but instead demanding the 20% co-share no matter what else is offered by the union and hoping the Mayor will take the blame if there is an impasse, now that there's a Republican in the Mayor's office. I think the Dems on the council think that this is clever politics. We'll see what the public thinks.

Finally, if there is one thing that this meeting made absolutely clear, it is that tentative contracts need to be made available to the public for a reasonable period of time before they are voted on. I know that Rhode Island public employee union members sometime perceive this idea to be anti-union, but last night's meeting showed how it is not.

Allow me to defend that proposition by posing a question and by inviting anyone who attended last night's meeting to offer their take in the comments section: Which of the following options do you believe would best serve the cause of explaining the positions on all sides of a contract negotiation to the general public…

  • Posting contracts in some kind of public forum, where questions and answers from knowledgable people could be exchanged for a week or two before a vote, or
  • Trapping people in a room with Cranston City Council members, then disallowing them from discussing anything important until Councilmen like John Lanni and Anthony Lupino spend nearly an hour confusing themselves about how "special details" work, and then expecting the Councilmen to be able to understand that issue, all of the other contract issues AND be able to explain it all to their constituents?

I submit that, with direct access to information and a little time to process it, the public will be able to determine what's reasonable and what's not, much faster than this Cranston City Council ever will.

February 23, 2009

City Council to Consider Measure Making Itself the Rhode Island within Rhode Island

Monique Chartier

If Rhode Island has had one of the worst business climates in the country due to taxes and fees, at tonight's City Council meeting, Cranston may seek to similarly distinguish itself on the state level.

The other is a resolution that would seek the General Assembly’s authorization to require all businesses in the city to obtain a city license, for a fee.

Cranston already has high property taxes. Why compound that reputation with licenses fees?

Though he probably did not coin the expression, someone said something recently that I had not previously heard: "Capital follows tax policy". Hopefully, Rhode Island as a whole is beginning to learn this. Cranston may need a brush-up course.

February 21, 2009

When Negotiating Season and Flat-Tire Season Coincide

Justin Katz

In a comment to my post about Tiverton school officials' ambiguous admission of intimidation by the National Education Association, Cranstoner Donald Botts relates the following anecdote:

My take on their comments was that the union was attempting to use intimidation tactics against them, but they either were not intimidated or didn't want to admit they were intimidated.

I spoke at a school committee meeting in Cranston recently. Magically, roofing nails appeared at the end of my driveway. I was not performing any home improvement projects at the time.


Each of my family's vehicles has had a flat tire, recently. With my work van, it was a roofing nail; with my wife's car (which I use when not working), it was two punctures, sans implement.

Of course, being a carpenter, I'm very slow to look elsewhere to explain such things. Moreover, amidst the daily inconveniences that arise from working full-time in a construction trade, having three children, owning a fifty-year-old home, living in Rhode Island, being politically active, and writing for this here blog, flat tires are things to be taken in stride. Heck, it's been so long since I was above grade, what's another shovelful out of the hole I'm digging?

It strikes me as a particularly foolish mechanism of intimidation, though, if there's another explanation for flat tires than the terrible condition of our state's roads: If they appear to be coincidental, the action will have no effect on behavior. On the other side of the spectrum, strongly suspecting a human agent behind a mere inconvenience will surely tend to increase one's resolve.


Mr. Botts sends along a picture of the nails — of assorted sizes — collected from the driveway, sidewalk, and grass in front of his home, as if tossed from a car:

January 31, 2009

Making Education Fit the Budget in Cranston

Justin Katz

The scythe has come out in the Cranston school department:

Gifted and talented programs? Gone. Middle school sports? Gone. Music lessons for children who want to play stringed instruments? Gone.

These programs and others are among the casualties in the budget proposed by Schools Supt. M. Richard Scherza for the coming fiscal year, and the picture could get worse.

Looking to make up for projected cuts in state aid, Scherza has proposed a 2009-10 budget that would raise spending less than 1 percent in the year that begins July 1.

To hold to that figure, he has eliminated a number of programs not required by law, regulation or contract, creating a list of casualties that also includes a summer reading program for elementary students, and hockey and girls cross-country at Cranston High School East.

That's in addition to cutting positions — five technical assistants, a social worker, an elementary guidance counselor, a special-education administrator — and reducing spending in a number of areas, including library books, supplies and transportation.

With that in the news, I thought I'd add Cranston to my series of charts illustrating per-student spending trends in a number of Rhode Island municipalities: