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State’s $300 million deficit takes toll on education

First in a five-part series

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mayor Angel Taveras’ decision to issue dismissal notices is raising uproar over the extent of state policymakers‘ power to make sweeping changes in the face of sky-high budget deficits.

This article is part of the series Education in Crisis

Last Tuesday, Mayor Angel Taveras issued termination notices to all 1,926 Providence public school teachers, citing the city’s dire budget deficit. The move ignited a controversy over how far state politicians can go to address financial challenges.

According to recent estimates, the state and its municipalities face deficits as far as the eye can see. Rhode Island has a $290 million shortfall for the next fiscal year that is projected to grow to $375 million by 2016. Yesterday, Taveras reported that Providence is facing a nearly $110 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Almost $40 million of that deficit resides in the Providence Public School District.

With policymakers looking to the education system for cuts, the state’s schools are feeling the strain.

In addition to firing teachers, Taveras announced yesterday that he plans to close four to six schools to rein in the city’s deficit.

“We simply cannot have a situation next year where we have more teachers on the payroll than we can afford to pay or have expenses that exceed our resources,” he wrote in a letter addressed to all Providence residents Sunday. Taveras emphasized in the letter that not all teachers will be dismissed, but due to a March 1 deadline for alerting teachers of changes to their job statuses, notifications were sent to all teachers “to retain the maximum flexibility we could to manage significant cuts to the school budget.”

In Cranston, the school committee approved a plan to cut an array of sports teams, all middle school instrumental programs and teacher salaries and benefits to reduce the Cranston School Department’s $6.3 million deficit.

Besides music programs, “there isn’t much to cut anymore,” Cranston Superintendent Peter Nero told the Providence Journal Jan. 19.

As it stands, both school districts are counting on receiving state aid, provisioned under the state’s new education funding formula, in order to operate next year.

But that money is up in the air.


State funding in jeopardy

The state’s budget woes have been brewing for several years.

Rhode Island currently faces a deficit that is almost one-tenth of the state’s general revenue. Cities, themselves suffering shortfalls, are counting on state aid to bridge their budget gaps.

“Over the past few years, the state refused to make cuts that could help to relieve its structural deficit,” said Ashley Denault MPP’07, policy analyst for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Instead, it used one-time federal stimulus funds to fill holes in its budget, according to Denault. Meanwhile, state tax revenue declined as taxpayers were hit by the recession.

In the past two years, state funding for education has fallen by $47.7 million, while other aid to cities has dropped by over $149 million, according to Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

But last summer, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, state legislators and education experts designed a funding formula for school districts that would increase total state aid for education by 12.3 percent — to $700,250,084 — by dispensing funding to districts based on enrollment. The formula, slated to go into effect this July, increases funding to historically underfunded districts, such as Barrington, Warwick, Providence and Cranston, while decreasing funding to charter schools and many affluent districts. Before the law authorizing the funding formula was enacted last June, Rhode Island was the only state lacking such a formula.

Reductions in funding for districts that stand to lose state money will be phased in over 10 years. Districts gaining money will make the transition over seven years.

But the state’s deficit means the funding formula’s implementation could be in jeopardy. Districts will not know about the status of state funds until March 8, when Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 proposes the budget for the coming fiscal year. Even then, the budget must be approved by the General Assembly, a process that can take months.

“In creating the funding formula, the Rhode Island Department of Education projected that all general revenue funds that used to be supplanted by (stimulus) funds will be restored,” Denault said. “While this might not be the case, the main issue for next year isn’t the status of the funding formula itself but how the phase-in, phase-out transition will be affected by the budget crisis.”

While the state is receiving $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds for the coming school year, those funds are not designed to fill budget shortfalls, according to Gist.

“The Race to the Top funds are for specific things that will help us to transform our system,” such as specialized training for teachers and administrators, hiring consultants and developing teacher evaluation systems, Gist said. She added that the state’s education spending places it among the top five in the nation.

“Rhode Island invests pretty generously in education,” she said.


Looking for cuts

But in Cranston, the outlook will be grim if the funding formula aid does not materialize.

“When the superintendent says there isn’t much more to cut, there isn’t much more to cut,” said Stephanie Culhane, a member of the Cranston School Committee. “We’ll have to go back to the drawing board and redesign our budget for the coming year.” The committee is also considering making more cuts in the next two years. “Would we move to make those cuts sooner? It’s a possibility,” she said.

Providence will also face problems if it does not receive its share of formula funding.

The city is currently renegotiating its contract with the Providence Teachers Union, a $120 million package of teacher salaries, benefits and personnel costs.

“There’s more pressure to obtain financial concessions, and it reduces the room to negotiate other parts of the contract,” said City Councilman Sam Zurier, a former member of the Providence School Board. He added that the City Council’s public hearings will allow negotiating parties to exchange information about teachers’ work and salary expectations as well as potential savings.

“It’s an open question if the negotiations will conclude that we can maintain the current cost of the contract,” he said. The contract contains regulations for the length of the teacher work day, length of the school year, teacher salaries, mandatory teacher training days and parent-teacher conferences, as well as seniority rules that can affect layoff decisions. In Rhode Island, teachers cannot be laid off based on any criterion other than years of service. Both sides recognize the teacher contract as a major factor influencing the quality of education in Providence.

On Tuesday, Taveras announced that students, teachers and parents will find out March 7 which schools will be closed and where displaced students will be sent. The school board will also vote on rescinding teacher dismissal notices March 14.

“I do not want to prolong this period of worry and uncertainty for any student, teacher or citizen any longer than we have to,” Taveras said in a March 1 Journal article.


Creative stopgaps

Officials and experts recognize that schools will have to be resourceful in compensating for budget cuts.

“Districts will have to be creative. It’s been a really challenging past couple of years,” Denault said. “At both the state and the local level, it’s time to start taking a long-term approach.”

Part of that creativity might mean turning to unusual sources of aid. In Cranston, the New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy, the city’s public charter school, donated $79,928 to the city’s school department to save the district’s sports programs. The money had been earmarked for sports over the years as the charter school tried unsuccessfully to bu
ild its own athletic facilities, according to a Feb. 8 Journal article.

Meanwhile, a group of Cranston residents is expected to launch Music is Instrumental, a 15-week program meant to fill the void left by cuts made last year to music programs in elementary schools.

More than 200 students have already enrolled in the program, which offers classes in 12 of the district’s 17 elementary schools.

Other districts have not been so lucky. In January, Portsmouth voters rejected a proposal to restore $765,301 to the school department’s budget by raising property taxes.

Despite the difficult financial situation, Gist remains optimistic that her extensive docket of reforms — which include toughening requirements to enter the state’s teacher training programs, starting rigorous yearly evaluations of educators, expanding public charter schools and revamping high school graduation requirements — are feasible.

“Right now, we are completely confident that we will be able to move forward with our reform efforts, but we will have to watch our funding decisions,” Gist said.



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