The Senate Education committee will hear a bill — S2239 — introduced by Sen. John Tassoni (D-Smithfield) which would strip control of budgets from local school committees and give that power to the Town Council. From the bill:
[C]ity and town councils shall have direct control over the direct financial aspects of the education, including total budgets to be expended, the amount of salaries, the interior maintenance of the school buildings and capital improvements, including, but not limited to, maintenance, and any other direct expenditure of money. — S2239
Tassoni explained his rationale to the Westerly Sun : "Every school department is in trouble financially. All you have to do is look at the [news]paper and every school has financial issues. The budgets are tight. There's not enough money to sustain what we’re doing. Something has to change."
Let's igore for a moment that the one of the drivers of these financial issues is the new funding formula coupled with the Senate's own S3050 tax cap, which has put districts in a "we won't fund you but you can't make up the difference" Catch-22.
Leaving that aside. Give control of school budgets to Town Councils?
Unlike School Committees, which are agents of the state elected locally to ensure that the district provides free and appropriate public education (while complying with a doorstop-sized book full of education laws), Town Councils are inclined to see schools as a the thing that slurps up all the tax dollars.
Let's look at a little history. What have Portsmouth Town Councilors proposed when discussing school budgets?
Making big cuts. "I'll be the voice of the taxpayer," said former Councilor Jeff Plumb
Reducing curriculum for fiscal reasons. "We're going to have to [...] get back to the basics [...] reading, writing, and arithmetic. That's the way it's gonna be," said former Councilor Karen Gleason.
Making arbitrary decisions. "I motion that we level-fund all departments, including the school department," said current Councilor Judy Staven.
And, of course, telling the schools to just accept what they propose. "And don't cry and whine," said former Councilor Karen Gleason.
Under the tax cap, every dollar that goes to the schools is a dollar that the Council does not have. That's not a situation which encourages dispassionate analysis. We elect school committees to make budget decisions, and changing Rhode Island law to circumvent their authority serves no legitimate interest.
If you think, as I do, that this is a very bad idea, you might drop a note to the Senate Education Committee, which will be hearing this bill. You can cut and paste these addresses for Chair Sen. Hanna Gallo, Vice-Chair Sen. Harold Metts, and the members of the committee: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
And you might wish to copy Portsmouth's Sen. Chris Ottiano as a courtesy: email@example.com. I also cc'd Sen. Tassoni, firstname.lastname@example.org, just to let him know my concerns.
I hope you'll join me.
Update, 3/6/12, 3:19 pm: Just had a chat with Sen. Chris Ottiano (R-11) who said he shared my concerns about the impact this bill would have on School Committees. He said that he had talked with one of his colleagues on Education, and the sense was that this bill was not likely to advance. He thanked the constituents who had reached out to him with a heads-up. Thanks, Senator!
Full disclosure: I have a student in the Portsmouth school system.