Rhode Island Schools Are Not in Budget “Limbo”


Rhode Island’s budget impasse is certainly ridiculous and harmful in a variety of ways (although government breakdown in the Ocean State is arguably a net plus), but I heard a particular complaint a couple of times yesterday, and it’s worth a response because it’s simply incorrect.  Here it is (italicized) in an article by Derek Gomes in yesterday’s Newport Daily News:

Nearly two weeks into the new fiscal year, Rhode Island remains without a budget, forcing state agencies to operate from the past year’s spending-and-tax plan.

That leaves school districts that were banking on increased state aid from the new budget in limbo. The fate of pending bills, like one giving workers access to paid sick days, is unknown.

At least for district schools, this isn’t true.  Under Rhode Island law, as it currently stands, towns must appropriate total funding for their schools, including state aid, and make up the difference if outside revenue falls short.  Here’s language from the Department of Education’s ruling when the Tiverton School Committee sued the town over this issue in 2011 (emphasis added):

The purpose of R.I.G.L. 16-7-24 is to require a “community” – which under R.I.G.L.16-7-16 (5) is “any town, city, or regional school district” – to appropriate a “budget provision” in “an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.” This means that a town’s appropriation must take the form of a total appropriation sufficient in and of itself to operate the public schools of the town. It does not suffice to simply appropriate a locally raised sum in the expectation or hope that state or federal aid will subsequently materialize to fill any resulting budgetary gap. Such a practice would run contrary to the statutory mandate that, “…in no event, shall state funds be used to supplant, directly or indirectly, any money allocated by a city or town for educational purposes.” The upshot of this is that if state aid is reduced a town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made.

Now, some of us around town believe this is wrong and were disappointed that the Town Council didn’t take it to the Superior Court, but it is the current state of the law.

Consequently, school districts can continue operating under the budgets appropriated by their municipal governments, which included assumptions of state aid.  If the General Assembly makes it through the entire fiscal year 2018 — through next June — without ever approving a budget and sending any additional school aid funds to the cities and towns, Rhode Island municipalities will have to find some other way to give the schools the money, but get the money the schools will.

  • stuckinRI

    As cities and towns approach the point where supplementing the “missing” (additional) state aid becomes even a remote possibility the pressure on the GA to pass a FY2018 budget will become unbearable.

  • Northern Exposure

    Following that logic, if state aid is increased after the town budget is set, the town keeps the excess. I have been a party to RIDE and court rulings that say the opposite. So, what is the correct answer?

    • Justin Katz

      It’s entirely a one-way street. Because the town can’t use state aid to “supplant” local contributions, the schools must get everything additional that comes their way, but because the town must “appropriate” the full budget, the town must pay for any state aid shortfalls.

  • Jeremy Chiappetta

    Very interesting analysis. How does this work for public charter schools in this version of the world?

    • Justin Katz

      There might be some peculiarity of which I’m not aware, but I think charters are in a different situation because there isn’t an intermediary entity, like a town government, for state aid. The variable about which I’m not sure is the component that comes from the sending district. I think that piece is probably secure for the charters.