Cranston Schools 8-16 Million in the Hole

The quote from Superintendent Scherza just kind of says it all: “It is really not a good time to be a child living in Cranston and going to the Cranston schools.” The Cranston schools are projecting between an $8 and $16 million dollar deficit, and that’s on top of the $3.8 million they still need for this year. They will only be $8 million dollars in the hole if the Mayor raises taxes by the full 5% and gives every dime of it to the schools.

It also doesn’t appear to be a very good time to be a teacher in Cranston, although those who get to keep their jobs will probably continue to do okay. But I wouldn’t count on any 4.5% raises in this contract go-around.

From the Projo:

[...] They did not propose specific cuts last night. But in recent interviews, School Committee members have emphasized that nearly everything is on the table.

Layoffs are a possibility; the committee could cut some or all of the school system’s athletic program; and the district might even require more students to walk to school, to cut transportation costs. [full text]

It will be sad to see some of the great programming cut from the Cranston schools.

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17 responses

  1. The School Committee is a group that has no understanding or empathy with the taxpayer and how their budget impacts the homeowner. It is a group committed to ensuring that the city never gains financial stability, it is a shame.

  2. Jesse from Cranston

    I wish I could say I can’t believe this.

    I can believe Rick Sherza when he says it’s not a good time to be a kid in Cranston — but not for the reason he intends. It’s not a good time to be a kid in Cranston schools because the highly paid professionals and the elected officials who are supposed to be protecting education are, instead, holding the city for ransom — again. They’re throwing the elementary schools into chaos, firing assistant principals from the middle schools, and issuing more veiled threats against the city. Then, to top it all off, they’re crying poverty!

    Here’s one thing I’d like to see the school district do, just once: Actually scrutinize their budget. By that, I mean stop just building a new budget on top of the old one — if “everything is on the table,” administrative costs should be a main target. As I’ve asked before, why does the school department need 3 personnel clerks (and, I might add, a former School Committee Chairman running it)? That, right there, is more than $250,000, I’d estimate.

    I see in the article that “with health care, pension and utility costs expected to soar, it came in nearly $14.5 million higher than the current-year budget.”

    Isn’t the department CUTTING 15 positions? And pension costs? I thought that moving 6th graders out of the middle schools would… oh, that’s right: I predicted here http://kmareka.com/?p=1648#comments that “the potential “savingsâ€? will be wiped out by the cost of hiring new elementary teachers while having to pay pensions and health care for those who retire.”

    What about copays? Seems that I recall the school committee stopping the requirement for copays after imposing them a few years prior.

    And utility costs? Everyone who lives in the real world who pays utilities has been budgeting for them (to the apparent detriment of the economy as a whole) — why hasn’t the school district been doing this?

    This only proves, yet again, that it’s time to end the school committee system in Rhode Island and bring the schools back under direct control of the cities and towns. We need to bring reason back to education.

  3. Andrea Iannazzi

    Jesse,
    I don’t like to comment on blogs but your comments are so wrong that they need correcting.
    First, every employee of Cranston Public Schools pays a portion of their health care. The School Committee will be looking to drastically increase cost sharing through negotiations with ALL bargaining units this year.

    Second, we have scrutinized the budget extensively for the past few years. Mr. Stycos is a prime example of this. I have fought against administrative raises and for the elimination of administrative positions, including some in the Personnel office. Most of Mr. Stycos and my ideas have not been supported by a majority of the School Committee.

    Third, the 6th grade move will save money. The savings is not yet reflected in the 2008-2009 proposed budget. This is because the School Committee has not yet decided which “Scenario” will be implemented. Once the decision is made, the cost savings from the move will be reflected in the budget. This savings is estimated at 1-1.3 million dollars. Health and dental costs, pension contributions, and utility costs are skyrocketing. It is also a fact that the State has proposed level funding again. This, unfortunately, puts a huge burden on the local taxpayers.

    Finally, your idea of eliminating the School Committee clearly comes from Council President Garabedian. Just yesterday he informed me that he was going to propose this action. He will need to change state law and the City Charter to achieve this. I initially disagree with this proposal but will keep an open mind if the conversation progresses. Knowing how much time is involved in serving on the School Committee, I don’t think it is practical to also spend time serving on City Committees.

  4. Jesse from Cranston

    Ms. Iannazzi:

    As much as I enjoy getting a good lecture from time to time, your response is more — not less — proof of the points I’m trying to make.

    1. On co-pays, teachers pay 5%. which was reinstated in the contract negotiated in 2005. Previously they paid no co-pay. My recollection is correct, but I will concede that there is a co-pay now. Still, you explain that the school board plans to negotiate “drastically” higher co-pays (let’s call them what they are, too, shall we?). To me, this proves that the committee is only now realizing the importance of bringing the teachers’ benefits into line with reality. And announcing this as a negotiating tactic, this early in the game, nearly always fails. I mean, I hope you’re correct, but I think there’s more of a chance of a teachers’ strike than actually getting major concessions (which, unfortunately, will not really be that major).

    2. Your defense of yourself and Mr. Stycos in scrutinizing the school budget similarly falls flat. You admit that your actions “have not been supported by a majority of the School Committee” — which proves my point that the school board has done nothing to hold down its budget, and in fact has continued to simply build new budgets on top of old ones.

    3. Insisting that the 6th grade move will save money doesn’t make it true. And you don’t address my specific point that the school department will still be paying health care costs for the administrators it’s about to let go. Will it, or will it not be part of the health care increase next year? What has the school department been doing to address utility costs prior to its planning for this budget? Blaming the state is, to be blunt, a typical school district cop-out. My whole point is that the school department hasn’t been doing its job to address these issues before they become crises — and again, you’re actually proving me right.

    4. So the idea of eliminating school committees is Aram’s. And…? I happen to support it, just as I agree with many of his positions on issues. You’re entitled to disagree with it, of course. But I find your reasoning — that “serving on city committees” would somehow take away from the time needed to address educational issues — to be flawed. If anything, the time spent learning about planning and zoning issues — not to mention municipal budgets, consolidation of services and purchases, and realistic contract negotiations — would do nothing but help elected officials have a complete picture of how to serve the city best, and how to efficiently deliver educational services without bankrupting the city. That’s time well-spent, in my mind.

    So, I guess, my position needs so much “correcting” that… you prove me right on every count.

    Sorry, Ms. Iannazzi, but your reply sounds like more of the same rhetoric that I’ve been hearing for years from school committees. I’m sure you plan to run for re-election this year, which also taints your viewpoint.

    This kind of protect-the-status-quo argument is — much to your chagrin, I’m sure — precisely the reason I support elimination of school committees. You’ve done nothing to convince me otherwise. I also point to the school committee’s decision to pursue Caruolo action against the city — why is this always the first fall-back position? Why hasn’t the school committee done more to cut the budget BEFORE resorting to yet another taxpayer-financed lawsuit? You don’t adequately explain this, though I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Eliminating school committees would completely stop Caruolo actions, make school departments directly accountable to taxpayers, and cut costly duplication of services. And what is your objection? You know how much time it takes to serve on a school committee (which, I guess, magically gives you superhuman insight), and you believe school boards can’t be bothered to learn how the rest of government works.

    If this is the type of anti-reform argument we can expect when the idea of eliminating the school committee goes to a referendum, Aram’s proposal will win by a landslide.

  5. Andrea Iannazzi

    1- The reason it is called a cost-share is because through negotiations, the School Committee was able to secure “plan changes.” These include employees paying more for prescription drugs and visits to ERs. With the plan changes, teachers are contributing approximately 9.5% of their health care. This is a number that we will look to increase significantly through negotiations.

    2- The School Committee has met with City Officials on a Joint committee to attempt to consolidate services. Similarly, through a resolution that I sponsored, the Cranston and Warwick School Departments have also worked on consolidating services. Two small examples- Warwick now sends students to the Charter school and we share busing runs for out of city placements.

    3- The 6th grade move will ABSOLUTELY save money. The projected savings includes reductions in staffing at the middle school level with add backs at the elementary level. The slide presentation that you linked to earlier clearly details how the numbers were calculated.
    With regards to utilities, the District hired an energy manager and have had great results thus far. The energy manager goes from building to building to emphasize conservation and “energy education.” She more than makes up for her salary & benefits package with the savings she has achieved thus far.

    4- Perhaps I wasn’t clear with regards to the time commitment involved. During the months of June, September, and October (as a prime example), School Committee members attend School meetings/ events an average of four nights a week. It would be difficult for an official to juggle this with additional city meetings. I certainly did not mean to imply that school officials “can’t be bothered to learn how the rest of government works.” My colleagues and I attend Council meetings as often as we are able to (when they do not conflict with our own meetings).

    I have no objection to cutting “costly duplication of services.” I’m on the PROJECT REDIRECT subcommittee to study consolidation of “Personnel” services (which is chaired by Jeff Barone). Although we have only met three times, I agree that services could be merged.

    If you have questions or would like to continue this discussion, I can be reached via e-mail (andreaiannazzi@msn.com) or phone (935-2411).

  6. Jesse from Cranston

    Ms. Iannazzi:

    I’ve read enough from your replies here that I really don’t think I need to hear from you privately.

    You’ve shown quite clearly that for every direct question, there is a dissembling answer from the school district. Teachers pay “approximately 9.5%” of their health care? How about a real number? Or, how about recognizing that it’s all taxpayer money?

    Sending Warwick kids to the new school and getting that city to pay for busing hardly lessens the financial impact of the new school and all the new teachers and staff it required.

    You still haven’t answered whether the increase in health care next year includes costs for letting go 15 staff people. Any amount will cut into the estimated dream number of $1 million. And hiring another school department staff person to save utility costs is another example of school department logic — don’t have an existing staff member, like, say, the Finance Director, do it. No, we need a whole new person to drive from school to school. We could have saved those utility costs, AND this new person’s salary and benefits, if the school department believed in efficiency in the first place. Instead of talking about savings directly, this is an example of spending money and justifying it by zeroing it out later, and calling that “savings,” but it’s not really the same thing.

    You also, most notably, say nothing about the Caruolo action.

    I know the time commitment for school committee members. My point is, by getting rid of school committees, there will no longer be this argument over how much time school boards waste (in my mind) doing nothing to control education costs. And I’m really tired of hearing school board members suggest that they’ll attend city council members only when it’s convenient. No offense, but the city council writes the check for the school system. If school board members can’t reschedule their own sessions to communicate with the council, they shouldn’t be surprised when the council acts in ways they don’t like.

    And I’m glad you’re squeezing in some time to serve on the personnel subcommittee. I hope you can actually make savings a reality, as your work contributes to the end of the system you defend so vigorously.

    So, again, I’m not going to contact you privately. You’re an elected official; if you don’t want to answer for your viewpoint in public, that’s fine by me.

  7. I want to thank Andrea Iannazzi and “Jesse” for discussing this issue. I’d like to interject a little personal experience. A member of the community approached me a few years ago and asked if I would run for school committee. I have considered it many times, but for all my passion about education, I live in fear of the toll that would be exacted on my mind and heart if I were to try to serve on the school committee. On top of putting in tons of time and energy, the people who do this work are often subject to massive amounts of criticism.

    I think this discussion would benefit from a higher level of respect for the amount of work and dedication that school committees put in. Perhaps their job could be combined with the job of city councilor, but now you are probably looking at a commitment that needs to be remunerated at a higher level than what we currently pay as a stipend (about $4,000?) to city councilors. This means more cost to the taxpayer. Right now our school committee members work for free.

    Just trying to think outside the box here — what if our school committee was appointed in a politically proportional way — some appointments made by the city council, some by the mayor, some by the school department. Then perhaps the city council and mayor could have more direct influence over budget decisions. Probably not a good idea because it takes away the public election piece, but just a thought.

  8. I agree with Kiersten’s last paragraph….I do feel that most City Councilors and school committee members work beyond my expectation….but there are always a couple that are clearly under the minimum expectation – we need to vote those folks out.

    Jesse, you seem to have done the work so, what percentage of Towns/Cities in RI or at large work with the City Council also controling the Schools? And if they do make the change to streamline the two? How many eventually decide it was not a good move? Just curious as to the ability for those dual role – seems like it is too much to me, or maybe they have made it out to be more complicated than it is?

  9. The reality is that the Council cannot and should not assume the School Committee’s function no matter how inept they may seem. The body should be appointed by the Council and Mayor’s Office, the School Dept should not appoint anyone since that can be construed as a conflict of interest.

    I am shocked at pay increases for teachers yet an attempt to hold down administrators’ pay. The ole double standard…

    Should the School Committee get paid, absolutely…

    Should the School Committee keep subsidizing a charter school…no

    Should the School Committee redistrict the entire city…yes. But then the argument starts do we go from east to west or west to east.

    Should consolidation start…yes. But then the foolish meetings would stop and committee members would have to stay home.

    The reality is that this School Committee does not care about the taxpayer and this city administration is dropping the ball in protecting the taxpayers by offering a solid defense to the Caruolo action. As much as Laffey was despised, he had his ducks in a row to end the foolishness by the school committee the last time.

  10. Jesse from Cranston

    Kiersten:

    I’m all for raising the amount of money paid to city councilors if they also oversee the schools. It may, in fact, attract a higher caliber of people than just political aspirants. I’d also remind you that no one runs for office who doesn’t want to, so to a certain extent, they get the work (and the criticism) they ask for. And when it comes to school committees, time does not always equal results, so I’m not particularly impressed by someone spending 40 or 50 hours a month in meetings if it means nothing substantial is accomplished.

    Suzanne:

    No other city or town has attempted this idea. As I’ve said before, that only means that Cranston can lead the way on a major reform, rather than wait for the state to come up with a far worse solution (for example, the starving of cities and towns that’s happening now).

    Oblomov:

    Even if ending the ineptitude of school committees were the only reason to eliminate them, that would be enough. But, in my mind, it’s time to set the bar higher than just not continuing the terrible system we have now — and I think making school oversight a council function would do exactly that. People who wished to run as “pro-education” candidates could do that, and it’s very likely that many councilors would be elected on that basis. But the real key to the idea, at least to me, is that by subjecting the operation of schools to the same public scrutiny as every other city department — as well as forcing councilors to balance all of the needs of the city equally, rather than face being held ransom by school boards — cities and towns will fare much better in getting real results, holding down taxes, and keeping school budgets in line with reality. None of these are happening now.

    One other quick note… state law requires charter schools to be run by local districts. I think it’s a contradiction, one that dooms real reform through charters; why allow “out of the box” schools, only to force them to heed the school district anyway?

    Oh, and just because I enjoy learning about how people choose their online names, is yours by any chance a reference to the Russian novel by Goncharov or the term derived from it (which means, loosely, fatalistic laziness)? Just wondering.

  11. Very interesting discussion. I would like to thank everyone for their thoughts. This is crucial topic, and the city needs as much participation as possible.

    IMHO, this is exactly the sort of PUBLIC (please consider the use of caps as emphasis, rather than a shout) discussion the citizens of Cranston need to have. These issues can no longer be decided behind closed doors.

    Yes, I understand negotiations, but the school committee is spending taxpayer money here. This, I believe, gives us the right to know, at least, what the school committee’s goals are going into the negotiations. One can disagree with that, but it will take some powerful argument to convince me otherwise.

    And again, I understand the negotiating process.

    I can appreciate Jesse’s point about abolishing the school committee altogether, and putting these responsibilities back into the Council. I’m not sure I quite agree. I would suggest that the Council be given the right of veto over a contract, or some other mechanism. I believe that asking the Council to do double-duty as the school committee is simply too much to ask from citizens who have a full-time job.

    So, Jesse, I believe I fully understand what you’re getting; it’s the same sort of thing I had in mind when I said the negotiations need to be ‘professionalized.’ My concern about your train of thought is that you are moving into the realm of full-time Councilpersons. Our state legislators aren’t even full-time.

    Now, I know you didn’t say that, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see full-time as the logical consequence of your suggestion. I prefer to keep them separate, but to add a level of accountability that is simply non-existent at present. However, I believe that our ulitimate goals are very similar.

    Oblomov, yes, it’s a double standard. That’s the point. The idea is to save money without cutting the actual education. I think it’s a smart place to start looking. Admin costs are overhead, and that’s where you look if taking a sensible approach to budget cuts.

    Goncharov? I’ve read some Russian novels, but that one’s beyond me. Perhaps I should have called myself Chichikov. Or maybe just Tovarich.

  12. Jesse from Cranston

    klaus:

    I like your idea on council veto power, but it’s a half-step. And it would likely result in Caruolo actions, anyway.

    And I get your point about the specter of full-time councilors. But, really, how far away from that are we now, anyway? The Council meets 12 months of the year (even during campaign season), sometimes 2 or 3 nights a week, etc. And in some towns in Rhode Island, the council is still the “management,” instead of a mayor. So while it would be unprecedented, I think a Council that also oversees the school department would be a reform that could bring real results.

    Here’s an idea I’d like to see the school committee take up: Stop self-funding health care. With 1,000+ employees, the Cranston School Department is a formidable client pool. Negotiating affordable care through Blue Cross or another provider could save millions — and it would stop the practice of reducing potential health care spending to balance the budget, as happened last year.
    See story here:
    http://www.cranstononline.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2964&Itemid=0

    Many replies have noted the potential difficulty of the Council also serving as a school board; well, our school committee is acting as a health care provider. The city also does it, too, as far as I know — which is a perfect opportunity to consolidate health care spending and put all Cranston public employees into affordable care. Maybe Ms. Iannazzi, in her role on the “personnel” subcommittee, would suggest such a move.

  13. Nice discussion…

    The reality is that we can’t afford this current School Committee. We can’t afford the contracts this body gives out while our graduation standards are subpar…We can’t afford the functions replicated between school and city while we have to bring in paper towel for our children…We can’t afford our schools to have heat set at 72 while we have people in our city deciding between heat and medicine.

    I like the fact that Jesse and the Council president think outside the box. The fact is that the job would be too much, Klaus is correct. We should have an appointed school committee. the current set up does not work.

    If instead of consolidation meeting, actual consolidation occurred that would be a good step. If actual health care percentage was paid without a corresponding pay raise to offset it that would be a good step.

    Sorry for the diatribe, but it is frustrating!

    Jesse- Nice pick up on my screen name, I was thinking about using Raskolnikov but I used that as my test when politicians came to my door last election. When one came to my door I held the book to see if any of them knew it. Only one did and he knew plot and characters (and some nuances that I missed), I want my elected officials to be as intelligent as possible (smarter than me hopefully) and that was my litmus test.

    Jesse, where did your name come from? Big Rick Springfield fan?

  14. This just came through to my email. It’s a notice of a Special Council Meeting to discuss the school committee and Cullion issues.

    link to notice

  15. Because the notice says the meeting is “executive session,” does that mean the public can’t attend?

  16. Jesse from Cranston

    Kiersten:

    Executive session means the discussion will be held out of the public eye. Technically, the public can attend the meeting — only to watch the council vote to go into executive session. Once the executive session begins, it’s closed. Then, after the session, members of the public can be there to see the council emerge and vote for adjournment.

    And in case anyone was wondering, those numbers and letters — 42-46-2(a)(5) etc. — refer to the specific state law which allows public bodies to meet in executive session. As usual, Aram is following the law properly in noticing the meeting at least 48 hours in advance and specifying the exemptions the council is using.

    Oblomov:

    Ah, yes, Roskolnikov’s Crime and Punishment. Lovely (long, boring) novel. Good guess, but no, Jesse is all about being an outlaw, and also a play on two Dukes of Hazzard characters (my email name is Jesse Hogg). I actually had never thought of Rick Springfield until you mentioned it.

  17. I missed the part about it being an Executive Session, thanks for pointing that out.

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