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Making a Tinderbox Out of a City

In response to an ideologically driven attack on a statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence on Columbus Day, this is a terrible idea, as reported by the Associated Press:

Democratic Mayor Jorge Elorza told WPRO he’d entertain the idea of moving the statue from the city’s Elmwood neighborhood to the Federal Hill neighborhood, which is known for its Italian American community and Italian restaurants. His spokeswoman later said that any move would require input from the community.

If it isn’t immediately clear why moving the statue to an ethnic enclave would be the wrong response, consider this commentary from Italo-American Club of Rhode Island President Anthony Napolitano, appearing in a WPRI article by Nancy Krause:

While moving the statue may not guarantee it won’t be vandalized, Napolitano said the plan would include putting security cameras in place.

“We’ll watch the statue,” he said.

Because the city apparently can’t, the Italians will defend their statue from the assault of others.

Dividing the city into fortified neighborhoods based on demographic identity would be a disaster waiting to happen.  It would declare a retrogression of our community toward a less-enlightened time.  It would be an acknowledgement that, as a society, we are incapable of the maturity necessary to take a balanced view of history and handle each other as individuals and as peers in the modern world.

We face a lot of work undoing the deterioration of our shared culture, but the easy accommodation of moving statues would be a marker of a step too far.

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The Essence of Educational Freedom… for Providence Pols

Ian Donnis’s article looking into the educational choices of government officials who live in Providence has received much-deserved attention.  I don’t think anybody has adequately noted how telling it really is.

The upshot is that, out of 38 officials he reviewed, Donnis found only eight with school-aged children, of whom there were 13 between them.  Of these:

  • Four go to private schools (religious or otherwise)
  • Three go to charter schools
  • Six go to regular district schools

That’s not the whole story, though.  One of the children in district schools went to charters before entering high school.  He and one other politician’s child go to Classical, which has been ranked #1 in the state.  Two more go to a particular elementary school, which Erika Sanzi implies is “on the fancy side of town,” with a lottery even for children in the neighborhood.

This scenario illustrates the essence of educational freedom that wealthier families enjoy.  If they are interested in utilizing public schools, they’ll move to specific zip codes for that purpose.  If that isn’t an option, or if the schools change, they apply for charter schools.  If they don’t win that gamble, or if a particular school has an entrance exam and their children don’t succeed on the test, then they’ll turn to private schools.  (I’ve long suggested that charter schools’ introduction was in some respects an attempt to capture those families that were escaping to private schools.)

If we consider education to be as critical as politicians like to claim, then it shouldn’t only be families of means who can make these decisions.

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Societal-Corruption Of “Political-Correctness” Reaches into Providence School Reading List

Right from the start, the Rhode Island media got it wrong when they criticized interim-superintendent, Fran Gallo, for making a ‘costly’ mistake in ordering motivational books for dispirited students in the beleaguered Providence school system. How dare she corrupt the minds of city youth with an otherwise uplifting book that happened to include passive “religious overtones?

The media was all over the story. But, the issue should not have been that Gallo wasted almost two-hundred thousand dollars in inappropriate books that she was forced to recall, but, rather, the critical moral question should have been ‘why’ were the books deemed unacceptable in the first place? What could possibly be so offensive about famous athletes providing motivational messages to youth about overcoming adversity, even if some of them cited their wholesome faith in God as a major factor?

But, it gets even better.

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Education Freedom: Our Children Need Opportunity Today

Everybody agrees that educating our youth is a moral obligation, and a vital basis for renewed economic growth.

Yet, very few in our political class have the courage to stand up to the special interests who want to maintain a government-run school monopoly. Look at the broken Providence School system. Parents need answers for their children today, not reforms that may help students five or even ten years down the road. Educational freedom is the answer.

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The Lamentable Process of Rhode Island Reform

During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:

“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools

Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.

On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:

  1. Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
  2. Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
  3. Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
  4. Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
  5. Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.

Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials.  We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.

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Collective Bargaining Taxpayer Ripoff #2 : Providence Teacher Leaves of Absence

It is not difficult to understand that if our front-line public servants have incentive to not actually be on the front lines, then the overall quality of those public services will suffer.

A new report from our Center, released this week – Paid for Not Working, Collective Bargaining Taxpayer Ripoff #2 : Providence Teacher Leaves of Absence – highlights the many forms of collectively-bargained “leave time” allowed for teachers.

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School Choice = Expanding Educational Freedom

Educational Freedom changes lives. How many Rhode Island families have been forced to move away? How many other American families have chosen not to make our state their home? Rhode Island students and families suffer, because of a lack educational opportunity and economic prosperity. The die has now been cast: School choice is all about expanding educational freedom for families.

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Assessing the Problems and the Solutions of the Town

The particulars will vary from town to town — depending on the makeup of the population, the availability of non-tax revenue, the personalities involved in local politics, and so on — but key principles are essential for government to operate.  In a representative democracy with frequent turnover of elected officials, the rules have to be clear and consistent (and the power limited), such that the electorate is voting on broad questions of direction, not to address immediate crises or controversies.

As vice president of the Tiverton Town Council, I’ve been giving these matters a great deal of thought, and it has ultimately come down to this assessment of problems and solutions:

  1. Tiverton has no long-term financial plan.  Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward.  Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
  2. The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed).  Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source.  Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
  3. Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed.  A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time.  Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots.  These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.

Some of these challenges will sound familiar across Rhode Island, but talking to people involved in politics in some other towns, I’ve been struck by just how out-of-whack Tiverton is on some of them.  That is particularly true when it comes to the lack of a financial plan.

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The Mystery of Deteriorating Roads

As is true around the state, the condition of the roads are a constant (and justified) complaint in Tiverton, with a particular focus on those that the state owns and, therefore, is responsible to fix.  Oh, they’re on the 10-year plan for repair, but that means at least five more years — five more winters and five more thaws — until the worst of them are addressed.

A local landscaper asks a question that occurs to many Rhode Islanders, in one form or another:

Louis Dupont, said the state “better do something.”

“The state gets all this money from the lottery. Where does it go?” Dupont asked. “That baffles me. All that money. Where does it go?”

Asked his opinion of the eastern stretch of East Road, Dupont says: “The tractor almost jumps off the trailer.”

The state now has a $10 billion budget, and the municipalities collect another $2.5 billion in taxes on top of that.  Where does all the money go?

Well, this is the Know a Guy State, and budgets fund special favors, handouts, pet projects, and a substantial pay premium for government employees.  Once a chunk of cash is claimed for anything or anyone, it becomes an entitlement that is extremely difficult to take away.  When money does go toward infrastructure, cost-growing mandates from the state, such as prevailing wage, drive up the expense to ridiculous heights so taxpayer dollars can’t go as far as they otherwise would.

Big-government politicians everywhere understand that they’re better off siphoning money to things that shouldn’t be priorities so that the public will consent to higher taxes and more fees in order to fund the things that they really care about, and Rhode Island has made that principle a way of life.  Until we stop shaking our heads and writing it off simply as the way things are around here, the practice will continue.

But imagine if we insisted on change and our roads were rapidly repaired, perhaps even while we experienced a reduction in taxation.  Decline has been a choice, and it is within our power to reverse it and rocket up the national rankings that give Ocean State residents a near-monthly slap.

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MA and Fall River Should Help with Their Drug Dealers’ Disruptions

The only recreation marijuana store in Fall River is experiencing booming business, and it’s disrupting the neighborhood, not to mention one of the major traffic areas into Tiverton:

“We totally understand their frustration as far as last week because it was mayhem,” said Kyle Bishop, the dispensary’s chief operating officer. “The Fourth of July was insane.”

Bishop estimated that business at the dispensary was up 30% over the holiday weekend and that as many as 1,800 customer transactions were taking place daily.

To help remedy the problem, Northeast Alternatives is considering making some changes. Bishop said the business will request an increased police presence to help direct traffic at the intersection of William S. Canning Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, to which the dispensary’s parking lot is connected. Police will also create a new traffic lane at the intersection using traffic cones on weekends, Bishop said.

The dispensary will also post signs discouraging customers from parking on the nearby residential streets of Commonwealth Avenue and Heritage Court and have private security patrols of the neighborhood.

That’s all well and good, but a piece of the puzzle is missing.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts collects a 10.75% excise tax on top of the 6.25% sales tax on marijuana, and the city is allowed to pile on another 3%, for a total of 20% of every sale.  If there’s any legitimate use of all that extra money, it’s dealing with the challenges that the state’s entry into recreational drugs might create.

In short, modifying that stretch of road to accommodate the cash cow should be a top priority.

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Larry Fitzmorris: All Down Side, No Benefit to Portsmouth Unifying High School with Newport

In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.

We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.

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Rhode Island’s Politicians Are Failing

For too long, the political class has failed the people of our state. At $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s one million residents, a family of four is paying over $3,500 annually for excessive compensation deals for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

With almost two-thirds of these excessive costs being heaped upon municipal taxpayers, our recent Public Union Excesses report further estimates that property taxes could be reduced by 25% if more reasonable, market-based collective bargaining agreements were negotiated.

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Discussing the State’s Effect on Municipalities on State of the State

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s new board member, Judge Robert Flanders, recently accompanies me for an appearance on the State of the State show to discuss the effect that state-level rulings and legislation can have on cities’ and towns’ ability to manage themselves and their budgets.

6-10-19 Impact of Legislation/Court Decisions on Municipal Management and Cost from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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Another Complaint Against Tiverton Council Dismissed

The Facebook spin after the Ethics Commission complaints against three Tiverton Town Council members (including me) were dismissed without investigation was that we only got away with it because we have friends on the commission.  (If you’ve watched state-level politics for a while, you may need to pause for a moment to finish laughing about that allegation before reading on.)

It will be interesting to see whether the same spin is tried against the Attorney General now that his office has joined the conspiracy:

On January 17, three members of the Tiverton Town Council – Patricia Hilton, Denise DeMedeiros, and Joseph Perry – filed an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint with the Rhode Island Attorney General against the other four councilors: Robert Coulter, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and me, all of us members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA). The complaint included three separate accusations, and after five months, more than $1,500 in expenses to the town, and many hours of lost time, all three counts have been dismissed. As the Attorney General’s ruling states, “we find that the Town Council did not violate the OMA.”

As I note at the second link above, this is all part of an ongoing effort to keep a disruptive Gotcha game going to color public perception.  If the people of Tiverton follow the example of the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General, review the facts, and talk to us, they’ll probably join the conspiracy, too.

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