Two Providence Journal articles related to Warwick schools, yesterday, raise a broader question, and a partial answer to that question raises an important point that one seldom hear’s considered, in Rhode Island. First up is the tale of the excess capacity:
The consultant hired to help consolidate the district’s 23 schools briefed City Council members and Mayor Scott Avedisian on Wednesday, and said as much as 40 percent of classroom space is sitting vacant.
“I’d have to say, it’s the most dramatic I’ve seen in all my years of analysis,” said Edward Frenette, a senior vice president at Maini & McKee Associates, the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm in charge of crafting a master plan for the district. The firm has done 21 school consolidations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The second article has to do with Mayor Scott Avedisian’s suggested use of those savings:
Edward Frenette, a consultant with Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates working with the School Committee, has told city officials Warwick could have as many as 8 to 10 more school buildings than it needs.
“Closing school buildings and consolidating schools is not an easy task,” Avedisian said in his budget message to City Council members. “It is very difficult and I will stand behind whatever decision is made. But a decision must be made. Simply not making a decision is costing millions of dollars a year that could go to technology and programs.”
A taxpayer advocate’s first response might (rightly) be to wonder why tax relief wouldn’t be on that list of things for which school consolidation savings could be used. The study’s conclusion is that taxpayers are paying for school capacity that the city doesn’t need, so why wouldn’t it make sense to return that money to them?
The question is partly rhetorical. One suspects that government officials see the current tax revenue as what the public is willing to pay for government, so if money is saved on one thing, it should just be spent on another. I don’t think most taxpayers look at it that way; they tend to think they’re paying only what they have to for necessary services.
In fairness to Avedisian, though, state law complicates things. Cities and towns are required to keep up maintenance of effort, which basically means that local school funding can never go down. Municipalities can calculate that funding on a per-student basis, to account for falling enrollment, but I’ve never seen a clear answer to how that works. In Tiverton, for example, the administration simply projected more students to enter our schools next year. Taxpayers could presumably look at a ten-year average, or something, but the potential exists for an expensive legal battle.
As the article intimates, closing schools is difficult enough without the unknowable factor of a lawsuit. So, the money stays with a school.
The question of why a union-dominated General Assembly would impose that difficulty on cities and towns pretty much answers itself.