Let me offer a local example to illustrate a problem that is relevant in every city and town in Rhode Island and probably across most of the country.
Tiverton’s budget committee (of which I’m a member) has no final authority over anything. Zero. The committee’s sole power is to define “the town’s” budget at our annual financial town referendum. The town council can put in a different budget. The school committee can put in a different budget. And any registered voter in town can put in a different budget (with 50 signatures). I’ve submitted the budgets that voters have chosen in all of the past three years.
The school committee, by contrast, has final authority over around 60% of the town’s $50 million budget. It is responsible for the education of most of the town’s children, it negotiates the town’s biggest labor union contract, and it generally has control of the larger part of the town’s real estate holdings.
How are they doing? Here’s a headline and opening paragraph from the March 15 Newport Daily News (not online):
School faces possible graduation crisis
Nearly a third of the Tiverton High School senior class is at risk of not graduating in June because of failing grades and low attendance. There’s also an uptick in emotional issues, according to administrators and staff.
Naturally, school officials attempt to blame budget constraints and families, but it’s clear that a core issue is that the school department changed its curriculum:
The high school eliminated Level 3 classes at the beginning of the school year. “The rollout was not nearly as smooth” as everyone had anticipated, Rearick said. Level 3 students are now in more difficult and faster-paced Level 2 classes.”
In any event, the school department has had an average surplus of almost a million dollars per year for the last five and, as of last June, was sitting on a $3.5 million reserve fund. From personal experience, I can testify that taxing for that money puts strain on local families, which can contribute to financial difficulty and familial stress.
My core point with this post, though, is the public response to government. The local newspapers have been awash with letters to the editor recently (most from members of a particular elementary school’s PTO), and what do you suppose their focus has been? Not a single one has been about the performance of our school district. Rather, their focus is entirely the budget committee, mostly concerning whether or not its meetings start with three-minute free-for-all public commentary and attacking members for being insufficiently deferential to department heads.
Who is leading these parents to target a mostly inconsequential committee and to what extent is that a deliberate effort by paid insiders to distract from their own failures? Obviously, it’s much easier to demand more of other people’s money than to force accountability from the teachers, administrators, and elected officials who have the town’s children under their thumbs.
How many other examples are there throughout Rhode Island?