Those That Have, Get More, Schools Say|in Constitutional Complaint in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) – Gov. Donald Carcieri and the Rhode Island General Assembly favored students from rich cities and towns over their poor peers when handing out state money to public schools this year, two school superintendents say in Superior Court.

     The superintendents of Woonsocket and Pawtucket Public Schools say the General Assembly failed to provide their districts with enough state money to meet even the minimally adequate education standards that the Assembly defined for this academic year.
     Rhode Island is the only state in the nation that does not calculate income disparities among communities when distributing state aid to schools. As a result, poorer communities, which receive far less money from property taxes though they have far more children who are educationally needy, must run their schools on roughly one-third of the recommended budget, the superintendents say.
     From 1960 to 1990, the General Assembly determined annual state aid for school districts using a program that allowed districts to set their own budgets; the state paid for a fraction of the budget based on the district’s relative property tax wealth per student.
     That system changed in 1991. The Assembly reduced school aid by 9.4 percent, or $26.3 million, that year. An ensuing lawsuit resulted in a judgment requiring the General Assembly to determine a baseline annual cost per student based on successful programs.
     But in 2006, the Paiva-Weed Act limited annual increases in municipal taxes and restrained school departments from requesting extra funding, leaving poorer districts with nowhere to turn and depriving low-income students in these districts of the same education as their wealthier peers.
     In 2009, the state shorted the City of Woonsocket by $13.16 million – $1,990 less per student than was recommended by the General Assembly’s consultant, according to the complaint.
     But students in richer towns that reap more from property taxes, such as Jamestown and New Shoreham, got the same amount of aid as poorer districts of the same size, even though property taxes in richer towns provide more than enough funding to run their school districts without help from the state.
     Woonsocket Superintendent Robert Gerardi and Pawtucket Superintendent Hans Dellith say that because of the cities’ lack of resources, their schools will not be able to meet the requirements of the General Assembly’s 2009 Basic Education Program. Those requirements, set to take effect in July, will be monitored and measured by students’ performance on standardized tests. They demand that schools “provide a comprehensive program of study in English language arts, mathematics, social studies, the sciences, visual arts & design and the performing arts, engineering and technology, comprehensive health and world language through the PK-12 system.”
     Superintendents Gerardi and Dellith, accompanied by their school committees and parents and students, seek declaratory judgment that the General Assembly’s system of school funding violates the state constitution. They want the funding system enjoined and a new, fair and constitutional one, devised.
     They are represented by Stephen M. Robinson of Robinson & Clapham in Providence.

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