City Council Meeting April 22 — More Education, Please!

It’s time to fight for the right to quality education for children in Cranston. School committee member Steve Stycos gives a good rallying summary for why it’s important for parents to come out for Tuesday’s meeting:

If passed by the Cranston City Council, Mayor Michael Napolitano’s budget will be a disaster for the schools. Supporters of education need to attend the council’s budget hearing on the schools, Tuesday April 22 at 6:30 pm in the Cranston East Auditorium. They also need to communicate with individual city council members. Just coming to the hearing will not be enough to convince the council to raise taxes to fund education.

The mayor’s April 1 budget presentation to the city council took five minutes. Only four of the nine council members (Santamaria, Barone, Garabedian and Lanni) attended. Five members of the school committee were present.

The mayor’s budget has three major problems.

1. The school committee requested an $8.5 million increase from the city. The mayor proposes a one million dollar increase. $8.5 million is a lot of money, but that is because the mayor and council only gave us an additional $900,000 last year and consequently we are running a $4 million deficit this year. The mayor proposed a four percent increase for the fire and police departments and less than one percent for the schools. If the council does not drastically increase the mayor’s proposal, I expect the EPIC program, middle school sports, JV and freshman sports and many other programs will be cut. Other programs, like the charter school and bussing, would also be subject to possible cuts. Under the city charter (section 6.04), the mayor is supposed to explain proposed cuts to the school department budget, but he said nothing in his speech.

2. The mayor proposes taking $2.7 million from the surplus or rainy day account to balance the budget.. This means that next year, the city will have to raise taxes by $2.7 million just to level fund all departments. A five percent tax increase, the maximum allowed by state law, would raise about $7 million dollars.

3. The mayor proposes no tax increase. Taxes need to be raised to fund the schools and eliminate the raid of the rainy day fund. We cannot run the schools with less than a one percent increase for the second year in a row. I see no other option, except raising taxes.

The school budget growth is dominated by pension and health insurance cost increases. Pension costs are determined entirely by the state legislature. They send us a bill and we have to pay. Health insurance costs cannot be altered with agreements from the employee unions. If the unions do not agree, under state law, things stay the same. After cutting $8 million from the superintendent’s proposed budget, we have few options.

Please attend the April 22 meeting at 6:30 PM at Cranston East and talk with your city council representative.

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9 responses

  1. Jesse from Cranston

    Let me first say that I respect Mr. Stycos and his service to the city.

    But I must take exception to his assertions that it’s the city’s burden to cover the $4 million deficit that the school committee (including Mr. Stycos, although I do not recall his vote) created when they negotiated the last teachers’ contract. As I recall, the school committee was asked time and again to issue a fiscal impact statement for the 3-year pact, but did not. Acting as if it’s a surprise that the school budget is $4 million in the red is, unfortunately, more of the same kind of political posturing that school committees regularly exhibit.

    I’d really like to see the school committee negotiate a new contract with some sense of the financial reality in Cranston — i.e., the city is not going to impose the state max tax hike every year, only to have the school committee sue every spring for more money.

    Mr. Stycos states: “Under the city charter (section 6.04), the mayor is supposed to explain proposed cuts to the school department budget, but he said nothing in his speech.”

    But the Mayor is not proposing cuts to the school budget. His proposal is for a $1 million increase. It’s only a “cut” in relation to the $8 million the school committee is requesting, and it’s up to the school committee to pare down the budget to fit its appropriation.

    So as much as I respect Mr. Stycos and his past attempts to change the way our school department works, I don’t think he’ll find much sympathy from the City Council or the Mayor this year.

  2. As I recall being at the school committee meeting when they voted to approve the contract (and being 9 months pregnant, to boot, and wondering why almost no one from the city council was there to protest and raise the issue of how we were going to pay for it) Steve Stycos voted against the 3-year-contract as it was negotiated by the school committee, citing concerns over how it was going to be paid for.

  3. For those who like to take a little walk down email memory lane, here is an email I sent out prior to the last teacher contract being signed. I sent it to the Mayor’s office, the entire city council, the entire school committee, and anyone else I thought might listen. This one was sent on September 5, 2005.

    Dear Members of the Cranston School Committee,

    I’m forwarding you a letter I’ve sent to my school committee rep, Deborah Greifer, regarding the teacher contract that is up for vote on Sept 14.

    The repercussions of this contract for Cranston’s budget are huge — both short and long term. In the short term, we will probably not be able to afford these salary increases without yearly steep tax increases for the next three years. In the long term, this contract will add to the pension obligation issues of our school system enormously.

    I have also emailed the Mayor’s line, Paul Grimes, and all members of the Cranston City Council with copies of my email to Ms. Greifer. Both Allan Fung and Cindy Fogarty have responded and agree that the contract is not fair to the taxpayers and will contribute to major financial problems for our city in the short and long term. Councilperson Fogarty is planning to attend the school committee vote and speak about her concerns. Councilperson Fung stated he hopes to attend if he does not have conflicting work travel issues.

    As school committee members, I am asking you to examine this contract again before you approve it. This contract will have the effect of prioritizing teacher pay raises over many other important economic demands of our education budget. In addition, the pay raises have a compounding cost effect by driving up the cost of long-term pension obligations, which are already an extremely onerous burden on our municipal budget. While I generally consider myself an advocate for increased spending on education, I want this spending to go to services and facilities for children, not primarily for teacher salaries and benefits, which are already higher than salaries and benefits for many qualitatively comparable professionals in Rhode Island.

    Here’s a copy of my email to Ms. Greifer. Kind regards, Kiersten Marek

    September 1, 2005

    Dear Ms. Greifer,

    I am a Cranston resident and member of your constituency. I have been marginally involved in Cranston education politics, as I was appointed to the now defunct Financial Review Board as a representative of the school committee. During my year on the CFRB, I met with school officials including Jim Cofone and Jacqueline White to talk about the financial issues which the school department brings to bear on Cranston. One point of emphasis which I brought to them was what I see as the need to bring health care copayments for school department employees in line with what professionals in the private sector pay toward their healthcare.

    In reading today’s newspaper announcement that the teacher’s union has voted to accept a new contract, I must admit disappointment in the terms of this contract in that I believe they do not represent an adequate concession on the part of the teachers and, taken together with three generous pay raises, will result in a very onerous burden on Cranston’s overall budget. By my estimates (which are admittedly rough and based on budget information which I am reviewing quickly and in summary form) the cost of the pay increases will amount to an additional 5 to 6 million dollars required by the school department’s budget for the coming year. For the second year, when the pay raise is the highest at 4.5% (unheard of in the private sector, by the way) the cost will be between 7 and 8 million. The third year of the contract, with another 3.5% raise, will require another 5 to 6 million dollars. Added to the rising costs of healthcare which a 5% copay will only fractionally ameliorate, and these two costs alone will likely put the school department’s budget above a 5% increase, which would be the highest level of acceptable increase for a fiscally prudent budget. On top of this, other costs for education over the next three years are likely to rise sharply, including operational costs for buildings requiring oil heat, gas for buses, and the costs of maintenance and upkeep of buildings which will also be driven up by the current gas and oil crises. Taken together with pay increases for administrators and increasing numbers of children requiring expensive special services, and we will have a very severe budget crisis on our hands.

    I am asking you as a school committee member to advocate either for reduction in the amount of the raises being offered to teachers, or for an increase in the amount of copay expected from them for healthcare. Even minor adjustments (7-10% copay, 2.5% raises rather than 3.5 and 4.5%) will make a huge difference in keeping this enormous line item for our city from spiraling out of control.

    I have a child in the Cranston schools and consider myself a strong advocate for quality education. As a taxpayer I am willing to pay for this essential feature of our city, but the increases need to be within reason. In my opinion, the current contract plan is more than the Cranston taxpayers can afford, especially given the larger economic problems of our city, state, and country.

    Sincerely,

    Kiersten Marek

  4. Kiersten,

    Did you get any responses from those you e-mailed?

    Also, isn’t there also a meeting at Cranston West Monday, evening at 7:00? and if so,
    The second budget briefing will take place in the Cranston High School West Auditorium on Monday, April 21, 2008, at 7:00 p.m. for the following schools (http://kmareka.com/?p=1763):

    Garden City
    Oak Lawn
    Stone Hill
    Glen Hills
    Orchard Farms
    Woodridge
    Hope Highlands
    Peters
    Western Hills
    Cranston West

    Your presence at these budget briefings is extremely important, and your support on April 22, 2008 is critical.

    Kiersten, which do you feel is more important the 2nd?

    I also just wrote to the School Committee regarding proceedure and expenses regarding the follow:

    Dear Cranston School Committee and other members of the School Board,

    I am interested in what answer you have regarding the fiscally responsibility you have surrounding spills.
    I am deeply concerned about Wednesday’s (4/2/08) emergency response to a Mercury spill at Cranston High School East. Two spills have now occurred within one year.

    What exactly is the procedure for replacement of all mercury thermometers?

    In November 2006, the Rhode Island Department of Health (HEALTH) announced a Mercury Thermometer Exchange & Thermostat Disposal Program, which has had several dates for this program and is in partnership with RIDEM and the Cranston Fire Department (160 Sockanosset Cross Road). I want to know what measures the schools has taken to remove all such thermometers and/or mercury-containing thermostats from the school grounds and exchanged at this program? What types of removal/disposal has the school engaged in regarding mercury at all Cranston Schools? As I am sure you aware, our State and local budgets are very grim. Therefore, allowing such personnel cleanup costs to our schools for such irresponsible handling of money at the City’s expense is not acceptable to taxpayers.

    I would ask that you find out from the Health Department what the procedures are for Rhode Island offering schools to replace the mercury items listed above. If not, the City should take it upon themselves to focus on an upcoming designated day to uncovering any additional thermometers. I chose to put my tax dollars into our children’s education and not for paying for the removal of mercury which should have been taken care of the first time.

    Similarly, I would like to know what the procedure is for cleaning shattered fluorescent bulbs and has the staff (janitors, teachers and the like) been educated as to the strict guidelines which I have attached a link to below?

    Why I care, I work on legislation to rid vaccines of mercury. Rhode Island states they are committed to removing mercury from our landfills, manufacturers have lowered the amounts of mercury used in fluorescent bulbs and removed it from most of our medicinal items.

    Based on these compelling health reasons and for you to be accountable and being fiscally responsible to our students and taxpayers – I demand you re-evaluate the current status and work for better resolution…instead of oops it happened again because but we didn’t know it was there.

    If you are a sportsman, than you know it’s been 2 strikes. I await your timely response.
    http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm#whatnever

    http://mainegov-images.informe.org/dep/rwm/homeowner/cflreport/cflreportwoapp.pdf

    Be well,
    Suzanne Arena
    ***********************
    I did get a call from Andrea I. (Ward 6), perhaps because I specifically sent it to her separately with a plea to respond. She did leave me a voice mail saying she would like to respond, but I left her one back saying I need a documented response because others would like to know the answer. I agree Kiersten that taxes need to be raised, and they must pay for some of their medical premiums.

  5. Suzanne, Good work in advocating for better policy in the schools for dealing with environmental hazards. When our wellness committee meets, I will be sure to ask about how these policies are created and carried out in the Cranston schools.

    The people who contacted me back after I sent this email were Allan Fung, Cindy Fogarty, Andrea Iannazzi and Jeff Barone. All were very supportive of my concerns. Cindy Fogarty spoke at the meeting at which the school committee approved the last teacher’s contract and questioned whether the health care co-pay was sufficient and raising the question of the fiscal impact of signing the contract. Jeff Barone was also at that meeting, I believe, but he did not speak. I did not see any other members of the city council at that meeting, which as I said earlier, disappointed me. It’s one of the reasons why I can understand Aram Garabedian’s interest in making the school committee a sub-body of the city council — because then perhaps there would be better communication between these two bodies, and we wouldn’t get into $8 million dollar deficits like this year.

  6. Jesse from Cranston

    Kiersten:

    Your past communications perfectly illustrate the fact that this year’s problems were easy to foresee, yet the elected school committee chose to plow ahead and blindly approve the contract, anyway.

    As I’ve argued previously with regard to the elimination of school committees, teacher contracts would be negotiated with a clear understanding of the community’s ability to pay and corresponding future impact, rather than done in a “let’s sign a contract and worry about the cost later” manner.

    And as much as I hate to sound this angry note, I have to mention that your 2005 pleas went unheeded — yet another reason (at least in my mind) why school committees should be eliminated altogether in favor of city council subcommittees.

  7. Kiersten,

    I’m glad to have read this posting. I recently moved into Cranston & have an autistic child. My wife & were hopeful that Cranston would be a much more autistic friendly environment than Providence, and so far so good.

    But, one thing that I’ve always hated in this state are our kids getting the short end of the stick because of bloated budgets and school committees seemingly self-delusional unwillingness to address the issues.

    Jesse just noted that these committees should be done away with in favor sub-committees of the city council. Makes sense, cut the bureaucracy and place it with ‘experts’ of city finance. But will the city council bend to the will of the teachers’ union as many school committees in the state do as well?

  8. Jesse from Cranston

    don:

    The idea is that a city council subcommittee would use better fiscal judgment in negotiating teacher contracts. I don’t think teacher unions like being scapegoated as the cause of their communities’ financial ills, but I also can’t blame a collective bargaining organization for accepting the generous contracts they’re typically offered by school boards.

  9. I went to last night’s budget presentation at Cranston West and the turnout was dismal.

    The public is tired and seem to have tuned out and turned off to the whole fiscal crisis that we face.

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