Corrente portrayal of schools `theater of absurd'
To the Editor:
I write this letter in direct response Richard Corrente’s letter from 2/23/17. As a School Committee member, I need to be clear that these are my views and not those of other committee members or the committee as a whole. While I feel that our community needs to have an open and honest discussion about schools and their role in the community, Mr. Corrente’s letter, coupled with his recent online comments to Beacon articles relating to our schools, seem to have entered into a kind of “Theater of the Absurd.”
He evidently has no understanding of what our Charter says with respect to schools, their governance and their financing. Like the overwhelming majority of cities and towns across this country, school departments are run as separate entities from other municipal departments like Police, Fire and Municipal. There are a myriad of good reasons for this that, for the sake of room I will not go into, but suffice it to say that our system of school governance is the preferred system across this country. He states that the schools receive “… more than the other three departments put together… and are not accountable to anyone.” While it’s true that schools receive most of the allocation from local property taxes, if Mr. Corrente cared to do even a modicum of research, he’d find this to be the case in virtually every city and town across the country. In fact, approximately 85% of the schools budget goes to salaries & benefits. Of the remaining 15% the large majority of that is fairly restricted in its use by State and Federal rules & regulations.
As far as accountability is concerned, again, if he had taken the time to do the research, he’d find that the overwhelming majority of school committees in this country are elected by the voters – the same voters who elect their council people and their executive. So if a Council and Mayor are accountable to the voters, how can anyone say that a school committee, elected by those very same voters, is not accountable to anyone? And yet he goes on to say “…they got legislation enacted to make it illegal for anyone to question what they do with ‘their’ money..” This statement is ridiculous in its entirety and also fantastically wrong on its face. The Warwick schools receive approximately $119 million (51.57%) from property taxes. The remaining 48.43% goes to the City side of the ledger. Mr. Corrente conveniently fails to mention that over the last 8 to 9 years the City has essentially level-funded the schools while during that same time the City’s share of our property taxes has risen over 50% - and we’ve received a property tax increase in every one of those years. During that same time, the school department has closed buildings and reduced staff, among other things, to live within their means. That’s a simple fact and, while Mr. Corrente chooses to ignore it, one could easily argue that this makes his fiscal accountability argument a bit misdirected. The simple truth is that Mr. Corrente fails to recognize that public schools take up the lion’s share of property tax dollars primarily because they are usually the single largest entity of a municipality in terms of manpower and infrastructure. Also they frequently are allocated a much higher percentage of local tax dollars than Warwick currently allocates. At the end of the day, School Committee meetings are open to the public, their budget, which by law has to be balanced, is a public document and, perhaps more importantly, the school budget is audited annually by an outside third party and that audit is also a public document. More significantly, Mr. Corrente states that “accountability can be a voluntary gesture from the School Committee themselves, or … can be mandated by the City Council.” To be clear, he’s not calling for “accountability” – rather, he’s calling for control and one wishes that he would be up-front and call it what it is. Control comes from an appointed school committee and that would be disastrous for public education in this city, in my view.
Mr. Corrente then goes on to conflate the recent $85 million bond request with the regular operating budget. The two are not linked and I’m sure that any of our high-school business students could make that distinction for him. We have neglected our schools for the past twenty-five plus years by kicking the capital improvements can down the road. The problem now is that we’ve run out of road. In case Mr. Corrente is unaware, major capital improvements are always done via bonding as there’s simply no way that a school department – any school department - could fund such improvements out of its operating budget. He asks where the “need” is and then implies that the funds from the $25 million 2006 bond approval, the last of which are in the process of being requested for release, were somehow misdirected. Again, If he took the time to do the research, he’d find that the majority of those funds went toward state-mandated fire code improvements in all our schools, and other capital improvements such as a new roof at Pilgrim in ’09, a new roof at Vets last year, athletic fields, ADA work, and will also go towards the replacement of the both the Vets heating system and the Vets elevator. Further displaying his lack of understanding of our schools, he goes on to lament that since 2010, one “result” of school spending “… is a student population that has crashed from 17,000 to less than 9,000.” Our student population hasn’t been at 17,000 since the late 70’s. Again, another fact that Mr. Corrente doesn’t let get in the way of his argument. Lastly, he adds the $85 million bond request to the current total school budget of $160 million to somehow claim or imply that the school budget will grow to over $240 million! It’s difficult to find the words to describe that one!
To reiterate, we should have an open and honest discussion about our schools, their role in our community, and what kind of local support we’re willing to provide them. Unfortunately, the ideas contained in Mr. Corrente’s letter will not lend anything of substance to that discussion.
Warwick School Committee member at-large