Grown ups are supposed to set an example for kids —and do right by them— but in Rhode Island politics, childish behavior abounds at the state house. Last week we literally saw the Speaker of the House, Nick Mattiello, take his ball and go home because he didn’t get his way.
And he didn’t only go home. He took his entire chamber home, leaving the state in limbo on a variety of fronts and forcing schools to run on last year’s budget despite state law that guarantees next year as the final year for the phase-in of the funding formula. State dollars that have actually been owed to districts for decades based on their number of students and level of need were finally being paid in full. And then this:
Both the House and Senate approved budgets that include $45 million in new funding for schools, but the two sides have been unable to agree on a finalized $9.2-billion tax-and-spending plan since the Senate made a slight adjustment to the proposal on June 30. The unusual move prompted House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to send his colleagues home for the summer. As of last week, there was no sign of when a new budget will be approved. (Dan McGowan, WPRI)
Districts and charter schools have been counting on the additional dollars since 2010 and for a tiny state like ours, $45 million fewer dollars is, to quote local education leaders, “a brutal hit.”
Surely they can reduce personnel. No, they can’t because it is forbidden by law to lay anyone off if notice hasn’t been given prior to June 1st.
Surely they can find more economical benefits packages for teachers and staff. No, they can’t because they are legally bound by contracts.
Surely they can just put the brakes on any planned fixes to buildings. How exactly? Those buildings are literally falling apart and pose safety risks to students and staff.
Where the cuts come from is anyone’s guess. Fixed costs such as raises, health benefits and utilities consume the majority of school spending. And state law says districts can’t lay off teachers unless they are notified by June 1.
“School districts are not allowed to run a deficit,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “Districts will have to go back to local government and ask for additional funding, which may mean supplemental tax bills.” (Projo, 7/10/17)
Despite all the belt tightening rhetoric, kids will be hurt. There is no union to protect their interests. There is no lobbyist working on their behalf. And since they don’t vote, they are powerless when it comes to the shameful antics of our so called leaders who put their egos before those they claim to serve. So while adult interests are protected, children’s interests are compromised. And superintendents and charter leaders are now tasked with figuring out how to move forward in what can only be described as dire circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong. We as a state (and as a nation) are in need of a major conversation about education spending and student outcomes. Rhode Island especially needs to face the hard truth that we are a ‘high spending, low performing state’ —the worst of all the categories. There are state policies and laws that absolutely need to change if we are to best serve the children in our schools. And we, like many other states, need to stop touting increased graduation rates until we know that the additional diplomas we are giving out actually mean something. Employers and business leaders certainly have us wondering. And those conversations are pretty urgent ones despite what the state legislature and others will have you believe.
But leaving the state in limbo and forcing school districts to find ways to cut huge amounts of money per month because of dueling egos on Smith Hill is unacceptable.
Mr. Speaker, we get that you’re mad that the handshake you shared with your counterpart in the Senate didn’t mean the same thing to him as it did to you.
Get over it. We have a representative government, not a government run by two guys who make decisions behind closed doors. Hash it out. Compromise. Allow reps and senators with concerns to be heard.
And then, it’s simple. Heed the words of New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski and Do Your Job. (And Governor Raimondo, that may require some strong leadership on your part!)
Otherwise, Mr. Speaker, don’t ever say again that you care about education and you care about kids.
Because, sir, actions speak louder than words.