Failing Grades

budgetary crisis strikes Pawtucket public schools

by by Katie Lindstedt

On Friday, April 17, the Pawtucket School Committee sued Mayor James E. Doyle and the City Council under Rhode Island's Caruolo Act, a Superior Court action in which an education department demands more funding from a local municipality. Committee member Amy Zolt told the Independent that the Committee decided to file a Caruolo after sending a request for deficit aid on Tuesday, April 7, to which the city responded no. School Committee members await the results of the Caruolo ruling. Until then, the future of the Pawtucket School District's 16 schools remains undetermined as they face a deficit of $5.1 million dollars.

"We have a few options," Committee member Joanne Bonollo explained. A judge could either stipulate that the city supply the additional funds or that the district cut their expenses, "although there is very little to cut that is not mandated or contractual." Bonollo also suggested that the state government could instate an equitable funding formula under which public schools throughout Rhode Island would receive the same amount of per-student state funding. "If the funding formula were to happen, more than likely it would eliminate any deficit we are currently working on," she said.

Bonollo estimates the district's current budget to be $11,000 per student, a rate that falls well behind other districts' range of $14-18,000 per student. The city currently gives the school district $26 million annually, marking a mere 2.25 percent increase over the last 15 years. Out of the 36 Rhode Island public school districts, Pawtucket teachers' salaries rank 35th. Zolt describes the school district as essentially bare-boneds in terms of its faculty. While the district formerly benefited from the employment of two assistant superintendents, Zolt laments what is now a sparse administration of a superintendent, one assistant superintendent and "no human resources."

For as long as Zolt can remember, the district has suffered a deficit. Zolt attributes the deficit to larger issues, namely the priorities of both city and state politicians. "We had expected a lot more out of the stimulus money from the president; the governor used that for his own budget." While Zolt acknowledges that nearly every district suffers from deficits, she also feels that more impoverished districts like Pawtucket--where 50 percent of students are at poverty level or below--deserve even more attention, attention that Governor Carcieri has failed to show. While teachers' salaries rank 35th in the state, the police and fire departments rank third. "You would think education would be at the top of his priorities," she said.

In an April 16 op-ed published in the ProJo, Pawtucket Mayor James E. Doyle called the Caruolo Act a "recipe for disaster" that "stands as a symbol of all that is wrong with education funding." According to Doyle's op-ed, the Caruolo Act places an unfair burden on property taxpayers.

According to Zolt, none of Mayor Doyle's suggestions have been beneficial, and reflect a lack of understanding. "The mayor sent us a letter asking us to shut down an elementary school or cut full-day kindergarten."Since the full-day kindergarten is funded by grant money, eliminating the program would not resolve the budget.

Yet another obstacle is the negative media attention the crisis has garnered. On February 7, the ProJo reported that the district could not guarantee to pay teachers beyond mid-April. Zolt and fellow committee member David Coughlin accused reporters of fabricating the story. Coughlin told the Independent that such a payroll crisis was discussed as possible but improbable result of a hypothetical scenario.

"It appears the city can currently continue to make payroll," Coughlin said. "[The payroll crisis] would only be possible in a worst-case economic scenario."

Even as the Committee is being forced to consider such worst-case scenarios in light of the lack of state and city assistance, people like Zolt have faith in Pawtucket's public schools. "I've been on this committee for ten years, I wouldn't stay on it if I didn't believe in the district," Zolt told the Independent. What she believes in are, among other things, the teachers who "come to this urban district because they care. I applaud them for coming here."

KATIE LINDSTEDT B'11 does not suffer a deficit.