Time to stand up for schools
To the Editor:
Education is the great societal equalizer. We either value it or we don’t and over the last several years, I have publicly questioned and will continue to question how much this community actually values education.
In 1964 Ronald Reagan delivered a political speech titled ‘A Time For Choosing’ and I believe that’s an apt description for what our schools are facing today. I believe that this budget represents a watershed moment for our schools, our city, and for ourselves. Should it be under-funded, the potential severity of that impact cannot be minimized. School funding isn’t, as some may believe, part of some “chess game” between the city and school department.
Rather, it is very serious stuff and the lack of it has serious consequences.
But this discussion cannot ignore our recent history. John Adams said “facts are stubborn things” and in 2010, during the Great Recession, the state allowed cities to cut their educational funding by a maximum of five percent. Few cities cut at all and none did the full five percent – except Warwick.
And of the few districts that did cut, everyone had restored those funds in short order – except Warwick. So going into FY2011 the schools allocation was cut by $6.3 million and for the next eight years all that was given back to the schools was $4.7 million ($3 million of which was received this year for the teacher contract.) So take the $6 million x 8 years and that's $48 million in a total funding reduction. Add back in the $4.7 million and we’ll call it a $43 million total funding reduction over those years.
Consequently, during that time several buildings were closed and staff was reduced in order to balance the school budget as is required by law. (Incidentally, those closed buildings and the accompanying acreage that have been turned over to the city are collectively worth millions of dollars in the real estate market and when they’re sold, the City, as the owners of those buildings, receives those monies, not the school department.) Also, during that time we’ve had a property tax increase every year except for last year but during that time the city's side of the ledger has grown by over $30 million. So a very, very small portion of our additional tax dollars went to the schools and yet the schools are chastised as reckless or extravagant spenders. So the real question we should be asking is this: When is it Warwick school’s turn?Now, before the critics rush in with the charge of “well, you also received increased state aid,”let me provide this: In 2010 we received $31,261,608 in state aid. This year we received $39,004,478 for a total cumulative increase of $7,742,870 over eight years. (This coming year we will see a $1.5 million reduction in State aid). To sum it up, our total increase in state aid over eight years replaced a little over one year’s worth of what the schools lost over that same period from the City. Facts are stubborn things, indeed.
To put this into an even simpler perspective, from FY2011-2018 total city funding to our schools grew by .0145% or an average of .002% per year but our property tax increases averaged 2.2% per year for the same period. The average rate of inflation for those years (as measured by the CPI index) was 1.68% per year. So if the allocation had simply kept pace with inflation it would be $132.2 million - $1.7 million more than what we’re currently asking for. I’m not suggesting that we should have requested $132.2 million. What I am saying is that over the last 8 years our schools have been slowly starved of funding and too many of those who should have been working together uniting for more funding were more interested fighting yesterday’s battles.
I once heard a speaker say, “Intentions without actions equals squat”. For those who preach that they care about our schools and our students, this is the time for them to actually prove it.
This is your call to action. We have to stand together, all of us, including Warwick Teachers Union leadership, teachers, support staff, parents, and students to advocate in favor of the adoption of this budget request. And to those declared School Committee candidates, I’d ask that they stand up and be counted too and take a stand on whether they think our request is valid or not. This budget contains “needs,” not “wants.” Students need additional social workers and psychologists. Students need math interventionists and science teachers. Students need department heads at the middle schools. Students need music, language, arts, sports, and Pathway programs. Students need special ed supports, more Honors, AP and EEP programs. Teachers need professional development. Teachers and students need supplies. And most importantly, we need to see better student outcomes and that is what’s getting lost in all of this and what’s never talked about! Simply put, there is no good reason whatsoever for where we rank statewide, and we’ve barely budged ever since the state started to actually measure results fifteen years ago. But all of this costs money. To put this into plain language, our $8 million request will cost the taxpayer whose home is assessed at $200,000 roughly $160 a year in additional property taxes. That’s $13.33 per month; $3.07 per week; or 43.8c per day. I’ll gladly pay it. Most people spend more than that on their daily coffee or almost as much on Netflix!
So if you think these things are necessary, then yes, it is a time for choosing. To state the obvious, we have a common interest here. This isn’t some kind of zero-sum game where one side wants to “win” so that the other side can “lose.” In most other districts, administration, the school committee and union leadership realize this and speak in one voice when it comes to matters like this. Witness what’s currently happening in Coventry, where a $500,000K cut resulted in 34 teacher layoffs. What’s notable there is that School Committee members, teacher union leadership and parents all spoke up at the recent Town Meeting in defense of the school’s request. But I’ve never seen this in Warwick. Never. We simply can no longer allow this kind of thinking, where current and past animosities get in the way of us coming together for what our students need. Nor should we allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, which seems to be all too ingrained in too many of us. That choice rests with us and only us and if we can’t see or understand this, then God help us because our students deserve better and we’re here for them – or so we tell ourselves.
I ran for SC because I value public education and I believe we can become one of the best school system in this state. I still believe that. We needed to change and we are changing though in too many areas we’re still playing catch-up with the rest of the state. I’m a product of public schools. My entire family - my wife, our three kids, my siblings - are products of public schools as well. I’m committed to these schools and will fight for their fair share of funding but far too many of us would rather complain than commit. The days of level and or underfunding have to end because as someone once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” On Tuesday, May 29 at 5:00p.m.at City Hall the School Department will present their budget request to the City Council. My hope is for a large turnout in support of the request.
If one can’t make it, then I urge you to visit www.warwickri.gov and get the info to call or email your Councilperson and then call or email them and ask them to support what our students need. This it too important to stand on the sidelines and rely on others to do what we should do ourselves.
School Committee Member at-Large