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Ethics Commission Moves Forward on Edwards Complaint

Because the complaint that I filed with the state Ethics Commission against Town Council Vice President John Edwards, V, has become a subject of statewide interest, I’ll post updates as they occur.  Today, I received a letter from the Ethics Commission (click for PDF) informing me that the commission is moving the matter forward:

Pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-12(c)(2), and Commission Regulation 1003(c), the Rhode Island Ethics Commission determined on October 17, 2017, that the above-captioned Complaint alleges facts sufficient to constitute a violation of the provisions of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics.

The Commission will conduct an investigation of the allegations contained in the Complaint, pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-12(c) and Commission Regulation 1004.  You will be informed of further action pursuant to the requirements of the Code of Ethics.

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Parents of Special Needs Students and School Budget Battles

Entirely by way of connecting observations from multiple districts, this detail of Katie Mulvaney’s  article on Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl’s ordering Warwick teachers to stop their sick-outs is worth lingering over:

Ellen F. Polo, head of the Robertson parent teacher organization, said she is fully behind the teachers, as are 80 percent of the parents she knows.

“I fully support the teachers,” Polo said Monday, citing the union’s push for smaller class sizes and concerns about compromising special-education services. “If there’s a strike, I’d support it.”

The district has been eliminating teaching assistant positions that are crucial to meeting students’ needs, said Polo, whose oldest daughter is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

I’ve noticed that the parents of special needs students are often prominent supporters of (even warriors for) local school districts, backing the regular push for more funds all around.  They are understandably grateful to the district, generally, and the teachers in particular, and they have incentive to push back against budget pressures.  One such parent estimated on social media that her child receives $100,000 worth of services annually from the local school system.

Most Rhode Islanders will agree that these are services we should support, although the specifics of what and how should, of course, always be under review with an eye toward improvement and efficiency.  Similarly to school building maintenance, however, the fast ratchet of personnel costs that politically active labor organizations have succeeded in building into the budgets of government, including schools, ensure that budget pressure never ends and everything always feels insecure.  (Indeed, a general sense of insecurity is necessary for unions and other special interests and political organizations to maintain their influence.)

Personal gratitude notwithstanding, reforming our education system so that its focus is more convincingly on the students and their families shouldn’t be seen as a threat to those with special needs students.  Indeed, NAEP trends show that “disabled” students are losing ground in Rhode Island, having fallen from above average, among states overall, to below average.  Holding on to the status quo, that is, carries more risk than working together to find a new path.

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Warwick Teachers Now Go After the Little Ones

Warwick Schools’ strange rolling illness — which apparently hits large numbers of teachers one school at a time for just a single day each time — has now moved to the elementary schools, with students far too young to be left without some sort of care during the day.  Three schools for small children are closed today with no notice, at least one of them because of teacher absences.

That is, the event appears to be a deliberate “sick out” as a consequence of the district’s unionized labor force.  The public could reasonably see that as a form of actual illness, at least a mental illness akin to membership in a cult.

I think it was Gene Valicenti on WPRO who asked the local union leader, Darlene Netcoh, whether the union planned to hit one school at a time.  She professed no plans that were technically union-approved, but the rumors appear to have been accurate.  One wonders whether the district closed two other elementary schools as a preventative measure.

The bottom line is that this sort of thing simply shouldn’t happen, and the only reason it is allowed to happen is that the school district can take money from taxpayers whether or not they use the service.  Taxpayers can’t stop paying the bill.  Parents can only seek more-reliable options if they are willing to move or pay for private education above and beyond their taxes.  And the labor unions are part of a formidable national network dedicated to preventing our political system from working against their selfish interests.

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RI Housing Regulation Serves Minorities Poorly

The opening paragraph of a Wendell Cox article in New Geography could apply to many, many more issues than housing:

America’s most highly regulated housing markets are also reliably the most progressive in their political attitudes. Yet in terms of gaining an opportunity to own a house, the price impacts of the tough regulation mean profound inequality for the most disadvantaged large ethnicities, African-Americans and Hispanics.

When government makes something more expensive to achieve progressive goals, it inevitably puts that thing disproportionately beyond the reach beyond demographic groups that are disproportionately less wealthy.  This is a very simple concept.

Not surprisingly, the Providence metropolitan area does very poorly.  Cox’s metric is the ratio of the median house price to the median annual income — basically, the number of years the household at the exact middle of the area’s income distribution would have to save all of its income in order to buy the house at the exact middle of the area’s real estate market.  He then provides tables showing how many more years black and Hispanic households would have to save than the average.

Black families in the Providence area have to save for an extra 2.12 years (above an average of 4.26 years).  That’s 19th worst out of 52 metro areas reviewed.  For Hispanics, the Ocean State’s ranking is even worse, at 4th worst out of 53.

The obvious thing to do with housing, as with all economic activity, is to ease up government’s thumb so that it can become more affordable.  That strategy works on the other side of the scale, too, loosening government’s stranglehold on the economy so that opportunity can flourish and incomes rise.

The difficulty, here, is that progressives want to impose burdens, in this case on the housing market, based on their ideological preferences.  When those proclamations have adverse consequences, they blame external, often fictitious factors like institutional racism and avaricious landlords.  As a remedy, they then propose to alleviate the consequences in a way that gives them power and makes the subjects of their condescension dependent on their good political graces.

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Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.

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Are These the Employees You’d Hire to Influence Your Children?

One can understand, I guess, why a certain type of person would want this sort of leverage in negotiating for more money:

Warwick School District superintendent Philip Thornton confirmed Friday morning that classes were canceled due to a “sick out,” where dozens of teachers called out sick over ongoing contract negotiations.

74 of 145 teachers in total called out Friday, causing the superintendent to cancel school over insufficient staffing.

What isn’t so easy to understand, however, is why we not only tolerate such behavior, but even give labor unions structural advantages in our laws.  “Sick outs” by well-paid, white-collar “professionals” are a form of extortion founded in greed.  (According to the contract on the district’s Web site, a step 10 teacher in Warwick makes $76,601, with large additions for longevity and graduate education as well as opportunity for more through other activities, all with a government employee’s stellar benefits and a 180-day work year.)

Imagine a private business that allowed your children to become pawns in a negotiation and could disrupt your entire life on a moment’s notice like this.  Couple that with the system’s institutional intention to indoctrinate its students, and it isn’t difficult to see why the education establishment so desperately fears school choice.  Only by forcing families to pay for their service can they get away with this level of abuse.

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The State Makes Move on Rights in Multiple Dimensions, RI ACLU Applauds

The Rhode Island ACLU has a strange understanding of “civil liberties.”  The organization has apparently been successful in its push to have the state bureaucracy of the Department of Education take broad decisions about handling transgender students out of the hands of local districts:

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner announced his commitment Tuesday to require all school districts to adopt comprehensive policies affirming the civil rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

The announcement, made at a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, supports a petition that the ACLU of Rhode Island and nine other organizations filed last month seeking to provide this protection.

This isn’t just a case of state government muscling local government, however.  As has been explored in this space before, the guidance on which this new, mandatory regulation will be based is so extreme as to task teachers and other school personnel with seeking signs of gender identity issues in all children.  By high school, districts will actively conspire with children to set time lines for transition and to hide it all from their parents.

An “American Civil Liberties Union” that supports this policy carries an Orwellian name.

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The Stealth Tax Increase in Pawtucket for the Stadium

Kate Bramson’s Providence Journal article hones in on the possibility that Pawtucket might need to borrow more money for the proposed PawSox stadium than is being stated in order to have a fund to pay off the bond in the time before the supposed wave of new economic development.  The other possibility is more of a red flag, though:

Extending the district around the stadium from which commercial property and other taxes would go into a special account to pay back the bonds, rather than into the state’s or city’s general fund [such a district is called a “tax-increment financing district”].

In theory, this means that the city would draw a circle around the stadium and assume that any increase in taxes from within that circle are attributable to the stadium.  This money would go to pay off the bond.

The fact that this would be an “extension,” however, is an acknowledgement that the increase in revenue probably isn’t really attributable to the stadium.  So, in practice, the expanded TIF district means that taxes will have to go up for everybody else in Pawtucket in order to cover the city’s regular operating budget.

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Local Open Fire Ordinances Don’t Overcome Our First Amendment Rights

I can’t be the only one who has wondered how the story of the Swansea man who plans to burn a Patriots jersey in his home fire pit tonight would be going differently if he were a Black Lives Matter activist putting the American flag on the flames.  Kate Bramson reports on the latest development:

“We cannot legally issue a permit because the material he is proposing to burn is not permitted to be burned,” [Swansea Fire Chief Eric] Hajder said in a Thursday morning interview. “Any time open burning is conducted, it would have to be clean wood only.”

Hajder said he and the town’s police chief met with Hajder “at length” Wednesday morning and advised the homeowner that it’s against state law to burn anything other than clean wood.

Ordinances governing things like open flames are meant for larger-scale activities that are clearly not “speech.”  The distance between burning a shirt and burning one’s trash (to which Hajder compares it) is a chasm not only in scale, but also in intention.

Think of the scope of government control over our lives indicated even in the insinuation that a person would need a permit for the small-scale, short-duration action of putting a flame to a shirt in a safe location on one’s own property.  Then watch as all those people who’ve proclaimed the importance of the First Amendment in order to protect professional athletes from facing criticism and the private actions of fans find they have nothing to say about a literal example of government’s using the force of law in order to trespass on private property and prevent an act of free expression.

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Evergreen Contracts One Positive of Special Session

As Ted Nesi reminds us in his weekend roundup, the legislation making municipal labor contracts, including those for teachers, essentially permanent until renegotiated did not overcome Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s veto at this week’s special session of the General Assembly:

The issue has become a game of chicken between the two chambers, with the Senate saying the House needs to vote first because Raimondo vetoed a House bill, but the House saying the Senate first needs to pass its own version and get that vetoed, too. …  a Senate spokesman reiterated that there will be no override unless the House votes. A House spokesman declined to comment, but there’s little indication Speaker Mattiello is inclined to call a vote.

That’s pretty obviously a pair of thin excuses to do the right thing in the face of labor union pressure, but hey, we’ll take it.  The lingering question — as with so much legislation that works its way into law — is why our representatives and senators would pass such horrible legislation to begin with.

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We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.

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Details and Consequences in Cranston Fire Department

Don’t let the case of Paul Valletta, one of the most prominent faces of Rhode Island’s firefighter unions slip by without reading some of the details.  Here are some that WJAR’s Parker Gavigan has reported:

[Lt. Scott] Bergantino told police that while other firefighters were participating in the “Fill the Boot” campaign raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he and [Deputy Chief] Valletta got into a heated argument about overtime.

Valletta is also the Cranston fire union president and a state lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. Their argument turned physical, said Bergantino, who told detectives Valletta pushed him up against a chalkboard, punched him in the head two times and then threw him over a recliner and onto the floor.

Sleep well, Cranstonites, knowing that this is who responds to your emergencies, and sleep well, Rhode Islanders, knowing these are the state’s insiders, for whose benefit much of our public policy is designed.  Note that the fight started on the subject of overtime, one key ingredient (other than pensions) making firefighting such a lucrative career in Rhode Island.  A quick review of Cranston budgets suggests that the department regularly overspends its overtime budget by around $1.2 million (about 34%).

According to Gavigan, it appears that police have some sort of recording of the incident, and Valletta is currently suspended with pay.  Anybody want to bet against my expectation that Valletta will find himself in a graceful retirement and Bergantino will get a nice bit of time off?

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