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Educational Efficiency Requires Lower Spending

Here’s an interesting study.  It’s from GEMS Educational Solutions, and I found it via a positive mention in a Guardian article, so we’re probably not talking a right-wing group, here.

The study compares certain educational statistics across countries, and one of its principles is that “inefficiency can be a result of either underpaying or overpaying teachers.”  By that measure, the United States would become more efficient (better managing results versus tax rates) by lowering salaries by five percent and increasing class sizes by 10%.

Rhode Island’s teacher salaries are top 10 for the country, so 5% would be too low for our state.  Also, the 15.3 student:teacher ratio listed on GEMS’s application compares with a Rhode Island average of 8.

To be clear, these are back-of-the-envelope comparisons.  A more-thorough review might require adjustments of the numbers (different years, different teacher roles included in the student ratios, etc.).  I come across people, though, especially locally, who find inconceivable the idea that less spending on anything government does might be bad.

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The Rigged System of Unions and Town Government

The cliché about the news media is that readers will always find reports in their own areas of expertise erroneous, and something similar applies to news reports from one’s own town:  What’s happening locally seems to prove the point of the whole broad world.

Even adjusting for that tendency, though, I have to say that Tiverton controversies are starting to feel as if we’ve come just an inch away from making it legal for town employees to walk into our homes and take our money. As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

Such proclamations become more difficult to believe each time it appears that town employees are learning the lesson from former colleagues’ reaping the rewards of (alleged) bad behavior. We had Town Foreman Bob Martin and his pal, former Town Administrator Jim Goncalo. Last year, it was an entire shift of police officers led by overtime king Lieutenant Timothy Panell. And now it’s the fire department’s turn, with firefighter Patrick White:

The case of a firefighter who was terminated in early 2015 for allegedly abusing sick leave has been settled, with the town agreeing to pay $175,000.

That’s right. We paid him (and his union lawyer, naturally). The “neutral” arbitrator in the complaint sided with the union member.

One of the problems with settling is that neither side can claim vindication.  The institutional bias toward that sort of ambiguity, like union contracts and arbitration practices, is part of the problem.  Rhode Island has created a fundamentally dishonest system of government.

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When School Budgets Become Sky’s the Limit

I’ve got a post on Tiverton Fact Check pointing out the oddly divergent trends of school enrollment and budgets:

Think of it this way:  When the PTOs send out notices that the Budget Committee will be considering the school budget, parents and teachers fill the town hall.  How many of them show up at School Committee meetings when important curricular questions are on the table?  How many parents step forward during contract-negotiations to express concern that large increases for employees could eat up funds for innovative technology or even for fixing roofs and HVAC systems?

The taxpayers of Tiverton should absolutely provide the resources necessary to ensure our children and our neighbors’ children have every opportunity to succeed.  But acknowledging that principle still leaves us having to answer an important question:  How much is really necessary?

The following chart shows the trends in student enrollment in Tiverton public schools and the school department’s budget since the 2001-2002 school year.

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Ah, the General Assembly’s Legislative Grant Program

Here’s a telling little tidbit that slipped through the strainer of Tiverton politics, from a not-online Newport Daily News article by Marcia Pobzeznik on January 30.

Town Council Member John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat State Representative John Edwards the Fourth) appears quietly to have planned a beach bonfire for Christmas trees, which left his fellow council members feeling like “the Town Council was the last to know,” per councilor Denise DeMedeiros.  They finally found out when they were called to a special meeting to decide whether to cancel the event because of gusty winds.

Here’s the telling part that makes the anecdote of statewide interest:

Firefighters and a fire engine would have been required at the beach, deMedeiros said, along with a police detail for crowd control.  She asked Edwards if he had considered the costs.

A legislative grant would take care of the costs of the firefighters and the police detail, said Edwards, son of Rep. John “Jay” Edwards, D-Tiverton.

There is no such grant on the House’s list, although it’s dated only through October 1.  The Senate’s list is more up to date and has some grants for Tiverton, but whether or not they’re associated isn’t possible to tell.

Think of the process, here, especially involving the son of the legislator who successfully pushed legislation to make it more difficult for individuals to participate in local politics, creating hurdles for them to jump in the name of “transparency.”  A Town Council member almost pulled off a public event involving town property and the use of town employees without the knowledge of at least some of his fellow councilors, and the whole thing was supposedly going to be funded through a General Assembly handout that, likewise, nobody else had any idea about.

Obviously, given the lack of transparency, there’s no way to know whether this is relevant, but as I’ve written before, the state Ethics Commission would find no problem with a member of the General Assembly pushing to use state taxpayer money to fund a politically helpful event secretly orchestrated by his son because everybody involved is acting in official government capacity.

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Political Omissions in Worcester Story

For some reason the Providence Journal ran a minor story on a Worcester, Massachusetts, political incident.  In doing so, however, the paper spotlights a curious… let’s say… tic of the mainstream media:

Mayor Joseph M. Petty is now apologizing for remarks he made that, unbeknownst to him, were picked up by an open microphone at the beginning of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

The remarks were unflattering observations about some of protesters attending the meeting. Earlier, there was a rally at City Hall attended by people unhappy with President Donald J. Trump’s immigration policy.

Funny — Don’t you think? — that the article doesn’t mention that Petty is a Democrat and the main voice speaking out against him, Michael T. Gaffney, although in a non-partisan seat, has been backed by Republicans.  Why do you suppose that is?  How do you suppose the reporting might have been different if it were a Republican mayor badmouthing a Tea Party group?

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School Choice Makes Families Consumers, Not Commodities

A great short report for which I’ve done some research, but which I never manage to get to, would look at the effects of Vermont’s legacy school choice program.  Given the long-rural history of the state, some districts offer students actual school choice, including to private schools, and a key finding that Rhode Island homeowners should find interesting is that property values go up significantly in areas with choice.  Geoffrey Norman doesn’t offer more than a nod to that dynamic in a recent article in The Weekly Standard, but he does use the current debate in Vermont to make a key, fundamental point (emphasis added):

So, school choice is not—and could never be—supported by the education bureaucracy. It threatens not just their convictions but their livelihoods. Where parents can take their kids and the public money that is being spent on them out of one school and move them, and it, to another—well, this threatens the entire system.

Why it might even, in the dark vision of one of the prominent Vermont opponents of school choice, “turn children into commodities.”

Which of course stands the whole thing on its head. Commodities don’t make choices. They are manipulated, packaged, and bundled. As are students in the grip of the industrial-education complex.

What Norman is touching on, here, is the government plantation.  Attracting people to an area who are likely to need government assistance, binding them to their region with government dependency, and locking their children in government schools creates a captive audience with little power to affect the services their receiving.  Again, “commodities don’t make choices,” but when human beings are “manipulated, packaged, and bundled,” they lose the authority to do anything but sit on the shelf until they’re of use to some powerful consumer.

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Discount Rate Assumptions and the Certainty of Tax Increases

After years attempting to interpret public documents related to pension funds to understand the method of deciding what a reasonable investment return assumption would be, I finally have it straight from a municipal investment advisor. As I’ve posted on Tiverton Fact Check:

Me: So if a town comes to you and says, “We want to hit this number,” you say, “Well, what’s your risk?,” and that’ll play into seven-and-a-half percent.  The fact that the town can then in 20, 30 years increase taxes to make up for the loss, then you have a little higher tolerance for risk, so you can go up to 7.5%, which you may never hit, but in the end of 20, 30 years, you’ve got other assets — taxpayers — you can take money from.  Is that part of the conversation?

Gene McCabe, Director of Investments for Washington Trust:It is.

In the not-too-distant future, I suspect it’ll become unreasonably expensive for us municipal assets.  Elected officials and government employees should start pondering what will happen when assumptions about how much money can be confiscated from Rhode Islanders prove as fanciful as assumptions about high returns at the stock market roulette wheel.

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When the Tolerant People Go to the City Council to Silence Those with Whom They Disagree

Writing in the Newport Daily News, reporter Colin Howarth slips in a helpful reminder — as we watch the Left attempt to make American life a non-stop political rally — of Lefitsts’ understanding of the role of government (emphasis added):

Locals have used social media to voice their concerns about DePetro’s rhetoric in the past, citing what they perceive as misogynistic and hateful remarks. A day after the announcement, a Facebook group was created titled “Get John DePetro off WADK.” Two local residents used the citizen’s forum at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to express their concerns about DePetro.

That’s right.  Progressives in Newport are going to the government in an attempt to silence somebody with whom they disagree.  As Mayor Harry Winthrop says, when others criticize him for welcoming a new talk-show-host to the market, “It’s unfortunate people don’t understand the role of mayor.”

WADK President and Owner Bonnie Gomes notes that, if boycotts threaten anybody, they threaten the 15 employees of the station.

For a long time, in our country, those of a progressive persuasion have been sold on the idea that opposing views are illegitimate.  It’s OK to silence conservatives while proclaiming dedication to free speech.  It’s OK to lock those who hold traditional religious views out of self-governance (by ruling their worldview unconstitutional) while pretending to be an advocate for religious freedom.

It’s time to insist on bringing real tolerance into American society, not just the phony one-sided version that progressives like to put on bumper stickers.

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When the “Home-School Community” Is Separate from “the Community”

In Tiverton, the School Committee sees public education as promoting government-branded schools, not ensuring educational services that suit the needs of all of our children, as I’ve written on Tiverton Fact Check:

This distinction became clear at the January 24 meeting of the Tiverton School Committee, which introduced a new policy explicitly denying home-schooled students the opportunity to take classes — particularly technical and vocational classes — outside of the district through arrangements that Tiverton has made. Students enrolled in Tiverton schools can take such classes, even attending alternative schools full time at no cost to their families. …

The education officials in Tiverton have already decided that it is the responsibility of taxpayers to cover the tuition of students who want courses of education that they can’t get within the district. They are just applying that policy in a discriminatory way. No matter how much you may pay in taxes or contribute to the town in some other way, unless you put your children under their complete control, you are part of “the home-school community,” which is apparently separate from simply “the community.”

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Another Government-Wall-Street Scheme; Of Course, RI Is In

The Wall Street Journal’s Kirsten Grind raises a red flag over another mortgage-related investment scheme:

About $3.4 billion has been lent so far for residential projects, and industry executives predict the total will double within the next year. That would likely rank PACE loans as the fastest-growing type of financing in the U.S.

As the loans spread, so do problems that echo the subprime mortgage crisis. Plumbers and repairmen essentially function as loan brokers but have scant training and oversight. They often pitch PACE loans to help land contracting jobs and earn referral fees from lenders, according to loan documents and more than two dozen borrowers, industry executives and employees.

The referring contractor gets a cut.  The municipality gets a cut.  And taxpayers will wind up on the hook if things go wrong.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Rhode Island has this.  Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the legislation into law in 2013, after Democrat Art Handy (Cranston) passed H6019 and a gang of Democrat state senators led by William Conley (East Providence, Pawtucket) passed S0900.  The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity did include this legislation in the 2013 iteration of the Freedom Index.

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How a Pension Discount Rate Deceives the Public

Over on Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve used Tiverton’s police pension as an example to show how the high assumptions for investment returns work to give taxpayers a false sense of security:

The problem is that 7.5% is a very high return to hit every year.  According to the latest actuarial report, Tiverton’s pension fund lost$332,601 last year, which is about -3.4%.  In other words, because we needed a 7.5% increase, we were 10.9% short.  Tiverton should havestarted this year with another $1,065,971 or so in the bank.

Investment professionals will tell you not to panic, because we have to expect the market to go up and down, and what’s important is the average over years and decades.  One bad year is not the end of the world, and during the three years prior to this loss, Tiverton beat its 7.5% every year.

Two things make this picture too bright.  The first is that 0% isn’t the break-even number in this calculation — 7.5% is — which means every loss is huge and every gain is smaller than it seems. The second is that coming up short one year means there’s less in the bank to invest the next year, so the gain the next year has to be even bigger.

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Left and Right Need to Acknowledge Decisions Based on Policy

Hugh Hewitt makes a great point that conservatives like me sometimes need to hear:

It would be fair to announce the end of the mortgage-interest deduction in 30 years. It would be fair to phrase out the deductibility of state taxes by, say, 2050. But not overnight. Not unless you want to give the gavel back to Nancy Pelosi.

Purists have great arguments against “market distortions” in the tax code—in theory. But Americans don’t live in theory. They live in homes they bought at a value based on the existing deduction, in states whose taxes were partly offset through the federal code. Change those rules and what’s left of the GOP in high-tax states will be gone.

While those on the Left would like to treat this sort of consideration as justification for keeping government programs going forever, those on the Right do have to acknowledge that people make decisions based on bad government policy, and it can be overly harsh to the point of injustice to drop onto their heads the roofs that they’ve built over the policy framework.

Unfortunately, as with everything else, we can expect that reasonable concessions from conservatives will not be reciprocated.  For example, with the beginning of this century, special interests pushing bonds and Tiverton’s Town Council doubled the tax levy in Tiverton in less than a decade, to the point that house buyers who shop based on the monthly payment on a 30-year mortgage payment would have to pay around 15% less for a house in Tiverton than in Westport, Massachusetts, next door.

Those who bought in Tiverton before this punishment was dished out have been unfairly penalized, and many have been responding by cutting their losses and leaving town, not just because of the cost, but also because of the injustice.

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Public-Options-Only School Choice Relies on Irrational Prejudice

Notice anything about the recent op-ed from RI Education Commissioner Ken Wagner?

Some claim that charters take money that is owed to district schools. In my view, the money is not “owed” to district schools or any other education provider. Local, state and national taxpayers raised this money for a specific purpose: to educate the youth of a community. We have an obligation to ensure the money serves the children rather than simply maintains the current system.

This is the core of the argument that I’ve been proffering for total school choice.  Public dollars aren’t collected and expended for the maintenance of a government-branded school system, but for the cause of educating the public.  Whatever structure or method will accomplish that goal most effectively and economically is the proper one.

Indeed, just about every argument in Wagner’s essay would apply to education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, or any other school choice vehicle and could be added to the Bright Today list of myths.

It is only through the devotion of insiders to the status quo and their control of public information that this point remains sufficiently obscure that Wagner doesn’t feel he has to address it.  The people are starting to figure it out, though, and it is yet another area in which those of us who really wish to move Rhode Island forward for the benefit of its people need only guide their natural conclusions.

Consider Dan McGowan’s WPRI article on public testimony regarding the Achievement First charter school expansion proposal before the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.  The article is 17 paragraphs long.  Here’s the 13th:

But the majority of individuals who testified about Achievement First Tuesday encouraged the council to back the expansion.

That is, after 12 paragraphs — three-quarters of the article — conveying the points of view of insiders, who are in the minority, McGowan finally gets to what should arguably have been the headline of the article: that people want school choice.  When all is said, the only argument to prevent the people from using public funds for their preferred public policy is maintenance of the government plantation.

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The Hidden Agenda of Progressive Roadway Innovations

Shawn Cohen, in the New York Post, provides a policy blacklight that may reveal unseen motivations of progressives’ favored innovations on urban roadways (via Instapundit):

“The traffic is being engineered,” a former top NYPD official told The Post, explaining a long-term plan that began under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and hasn’t slowed with Mayor de Blasio.

“The city streets are being engineered to create traffic congestion, to slow traffic down, to favor bikers and pedestrians,” the former official said. …

“They’re not coming out and saying it, but they’re doing other things to cut down on traffic coming into city, things such as taking streets that had four lanes and making them three by creating bike lanes, or putting a plaza in, creating pedestrian islands,” the source said.

Those who follow transportation issues even casually may have seen people argue against them for such reasons, and we certainly shouldn’t assume that our roadways are perfect as they are, but as progressives attempt to move people into urban areas and make them more reliant on city services to get around, each proposal deserves scrutiny.

After all, when everybody else is on foot or in government-controlled transportation, the mobile elite will have yet another advantage.  The source in the article says Mayor Bill DeBlasio “doesn’t care about traffic,” meaning that he can blame others (like resident Donald Trump), but one can’t help but wonder what effect police escorts and helicopters have on his perspective.

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The Left’s Intimidation Game

As usual, the content on this Prager University video — featuring Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel — won’t be new to readers of the Ocean State Current, but it’s well done and worth the reminder:

Progressives are in the intimidation game for the long haul; indeed, Strassel points out that Southern Democrats used the tactics progressives now focus on conservatives (or any non-progressives) to suppress blacks.  The strategies are:

  1. Harass, as with the IRS targeting Tea Party groups
  2. Investigate & prosecute, as with Wisconsin prosecutors raiding the homes of conservatives, or our own U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s attempts to criminalize opposing views and activities
  3. Blackmail, for which Strassel provides the example of threats made against corporate sponsors of ALEC
  4. Expose, by which progressive seek access to lists of donors and other supporters in order to apply the first three techniques

On the last count, Democrat Tiverton/Portsmouth Representative John “Jay” Edwards had a coup this latest legislative session with his legislation to harass with regulations any citizen who attempts to have a public say on any local ballot question and to open such local activists and their supporters to harassment by vicious groups like Tiverton 1st, which not only succeeded in making public office seem like a costly volunteerism, but also in driving some of its opponents clear out of the town and the state.

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Drama at RIC: Another Way to Steal from Taxpayers?

The Providence Journal’s Jacqueline Tempera reported, the other day, on another way in which state employees of Rhode Island can potentially steal from taxpayers:

The managing director of the theater at Rhode Island College has been arrested after he allegedly stole more than $60,000 from the college over three years, state police said Friday. 

An investigation by the state police’s Financial Crimes Unit determined that James L. Taylor, 46, of Johnston, had been requesting checks from the accounting department “under false pretenses” and depositing them into his personal bank account.

Hot on the heals of the reported conspiracy to defraud the unemployment insurance office, this latest arrest isn’t making state employees look so hot.  Mix in the recent “quiet time” shifts in the Tiverton police department, and the entire Rhode Island public sector comes into question.

I do have to say I feel a bit for these workaday employees.  I mean, the really connected folks just get bonds, tax credits, and other means of handing out taxpayer dollars in sums way above what ordinary folks can steal, and it’s all completely legal.  When it isn’t legal, they get friendly officials in the attorney general’s office and even the state police to slow-roll and cover up.

Of course, I should note that Tiverton’s last employee caught up in a scandal of stealing from local taxpayers got away with a graceful retirement — and even the accrued sick-time he didn’t use because, it appears, he was just doing his side work on the clock.  Elected officials don’t want the expensive and embarrassing lawsuits, so it’s not like the workaday employees always get their comeuppance.

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Take-Aways from the Blockbuster Curt Schilling Interview?

Rhode Islanders for the first time this morning started getting some straight answers about the 38 Studios debacle that put us all on the hook for $89,000,000 as 38 Studios founder and CEO Curt Schilling broke his silence for three riveting hours on the John Depetro Show on WPRO.

So many interesting items came out of the interview. Two of the bigger ones – but by no means the only big ones – for me are:

1.) Gordon Fox crony Michael Corso played a huge role in putting the deal together and acted as traffic cop for the lucrative contracts that arose from the company coming to Rhode Island. Were all of his actions legal? And were the Rhode Island State Police permitted to conduct an adequate investigation of this question? Or was it … um, shepherded by the Attorney General so as to narrow its scope?

2.) Rhode Island and Providence have some of the most onerous building and fire code requirements in the country. Yet the newly built-out 38 Studios headquarters NEVER OBTAINED A CERTIFICATE OF OCCUPANCY because at least in part, Schilling said, he signed autographs for people. (Editorial comment: We pass highly intrusive laws and they don’t get enforced??? ARGH!!!)

Ahem. What were your take-aways?

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Police Union Contract Facilitates Tiverton “Quiet Time” Non-Patrols

This post from yesterday calls the practice among Tiverton police of having a three-hour period in the early morning during which they would sleep “systemic abuse.”  The fact that, as Tim White reports, multiple officers participated in this “quiet time” with the approval of a superior proves the point.  However, the characterization is true for a more institutional reason.

The collective bargaining agreement (PDF) between International Brotherhood of Police Officers local #406 and the Town of Tiverton requires the town to have at least three “regular permanent police officers on duty at all times for patrols.”  During a period of the day when the officers themselves, including the lieutenant on duty, apparently see no need for any patrols — or even wakeful officers — the union’s contract requires the town to pay three of them.

The three hours of “quiet time” therefore equate to nine man hours every day; that’s 63 per week and 3,285 per year.  For comparison, working four eight hour shifts on a six-day cycle, as described in the contract, adds up to 1,947 hours.  According to Tiverton Fact Check’s online payroll application, regular pay for most officers (not including overtime and other pay) ranged from around $45,000 to around $60,000 in fiscal year 2015.

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Whose City? Their City.

Although it would be interesting to know how the unpaid parking tickets of Providence mayoral staffs going back three administrations stack up against similar statistics in other cities, the terrible message is telling even if administrations elsewhere have the same attitude:

City officials were planning to be in Municipal Court Wednesday morning to find out what to do about the $14,575 in unpaid parking fines and penalties that drivers of mayoral staff vehicles have run up since 2003. …

[Director of Communications Emily] Crowell said while on city business, they are supposed to put a placard on the vehicle’s dashboard that indicates that. They are allowed to park in legal parking spaces without paying at a parking meter. They are not allowed to park in tow zones, no parking areas or any places that parking is not already legally allowed, she said. If a city vehicle is in a legal parking space and gets a ticket, the driver is supposed to contact the public safety department, verify that the trip was city business and the ticket is dismissed.

Obviously, if a ticket is work related, it makes no sense for the city to waste money and time in the process of paying itself.  But if employees can’t follow a simple process to keep the books straight or, as seems more likely given that the process was not followed, refuses to follow basic parking laws, something more is going on.

That something is an attitude that, because they currently run the government, they own the city.  Of course, the biggest indications that government insiders understand themselves to be ruling, rather than serving, the public are the heavy burdens, restrictions, and taxes that they impose on us.  Racking up and ignoring parking tickets, though, is certainly emblematic.

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