Steve Stycos on Cranston Schools Budget, Volunteer Policy

Steve Stycos of the Cranston School Committee provided the following update:

SCHOOL UPDATE FROM STEVE STYCOS

CRANSTON SCHOOL BUDGET

The Cranston School Committee will resume its effort to balance its budget Thursday June 4 at 6:30 PM at Western Hills Middle School. Although state funding for education is still undecided, the school committee must cut at least one to two million dollars from its budget. The committee requested $2.6 million more from the mayor and city council. We received $1 million. In addition, there is $1.7 million in stimulus money in dispute. The mayor says if we receive the stimulus money, we will not receive the $1 million increase.

We also budgeted for $1.2 million in union concessions, but have not reached an agreement with the teachers union leaving us about $1 million short of our goal.Areas for possible budget cuts include the EPIC program, the elementary instrumental music program, some sports and the elementary guidance program.

After listening to many parents, my top priority will be preserving the elementary instrumental music program. I think the elementary instrumental music is more important than EPIC because it is open to all children and impacts upon instrumental music at all grade levels. If we cut the elementary program and children start instrumental music in middle school, our middle and high school programs will suffer.

Parents may want to communicate with school committee members about their priorities. I do not find simple communications of “don’t cut that program,” helpful unless I know what cuts are preferred.

In recent months, my budget cutting efforts have focused on the school lunch program’s $250,000 deficit. I chaired a committee to reduce the school lunch deficit which met weekly. A report of a committee is at cpsed.net under “Committees and studies.”

The school committee accepted our report and endorsed some of our proposals to cut spending. We are in the process of cutting holidays for three hour school year employees from twelve/year to seven/year and reducing their sick days. We are also seeking concessions from the unionized cafeteria workers (the sixteen who work more than three hours a day.) In addition, we cut the hours of cashiers in the elementary schools from three hours a day to two hours a day and laid off three 3 hour workers.

POSSIBLE FUNDS FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS

The school committee also endorsed the school food service committee’s proposal that if a elementary principal can collect the daily lunch money without using a cashier, the school will receive $1000 for its use. The principal must devise a method to collect the money with existing employees or volunteers and then the plan must be approved by the central administration. I hope this will be a fairly easy way for schools to make some money while cutting lunch program costs. If you are interested, you should discuss the idea with your principal.

VOLUNTEER POLICY

The school committee continues to debate a proposed policy requiring all school volunteers to have a criminal background check. After meeting with several PTOs and listening to their concerns, I proposed that casual volunteers at public events (sports events, book fairs, school parties) not be required to have a BCI check. My amendment, suggested by Rhodes PTO president Julie Bradley, however, would have required tutors, after school program volunteers and field trip volunteers to get background checks. The amendment failed 6-1, although three other members of the committee have expressed concerns with the proposed policy.

I will not support a policy that requires people selling hot dogs at high school football games or scooping ice cream at school socials to get background checks. I hope a compromise can be reached, but I worry that fear of child molesters may severely cripple parent involvement in our schools.

The policy will again be debated at the June 15 school committee meeting. Check the meeting agenda on line at www.cpsed.net to be certain.

I am glad that Mr. Stycos articulated the concern for people not volunteering because of the new BCI policy. While the principle of screening people more closely who are in our schools is a good one, I am worried about people not volunteering because they have a minor infraction on their record that they don’t want the schools to see, because they are embarrassed about it. I also think a lot of people who only volunteer once or twice a year, at a special school-sponsored Halloween party, for example, might forget about getting their BCI until it is too late, and then they will not be able to volunteer.

As to Mr. Stycos’s statement about hot dog vendors at football games, I was under the impression that vendors would be exempt, as was specified by Andrea Iannazzi in the interview she did with me about the policy.

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6 responses

  1. Just a brief comment on the Volunteer policy. I understand the concerns about extensive BCI checks. However, it isn’t as onerous or intrusive as some might think. From our experience at the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership, I cannot think of too many (actually none, but I’ll allow for some due to a possible lapse of memory) who refused to mentor b/c of a required BCI check. And because of the nature of our programs, we BCI everybody.

    As for minor infractions disqualifying volunteers, that depends on the infraction. The application of discretion is important. Obviously, a zero tolerance policy would be unworkable and possibly dumb. If someone did something stupid 20 years ago, and the infraction is not germane to the volunteer activity, then good judgment ought to kick in. On the other hand, other infractions might well be disqualifying factors by type and proximity of time.

    I think there are a few things to keep in mind with these background checks. First, it’s easy to see bad guys/molesters/etc. lurking around every corner. Prudence shouldn’t be allowed to turn into paranoia.

    Second, BCI’s do not provide an unassailable shield of protection against bad guys. On the other hand, it does provide some guidance as to who is working with kids.

    Third, some of this, as indicated above, requires some discretion. For some volunteer positions, perhaps a background check is superfluous. For others, a zero tolerance policy is the only way to go. For those in between, it might depend on infraction and proximity in time.

    The issue of vendors presents another issue. I would say that by its nature, a vendor at a ballgame doesn’t have anywhere near the proximity to kids that a volunteer in a school would have. Perhaps a BCI in these cases would be overkill.

    One thing we’ve learned at the Mentoring Partnership is that it’s sometimes a tough balance between prudent protection of kids and a policy that is so restrictive that programs cannot operate. However, with a strong foundation in place and a bit of hard work, especially supervising those volunteering for a school program, it’s a balance that can be achieved.

  2. I have to get a BCI check every time I start a new job. I’ve been told that employers aren’t requiring a spotless record, but look for a history relevant to the job the applicant is applying for.

  3. Kiersten Marek | Reply

    It’s not that the minor infraction (a disorderly conduct charge from adolescence, for example) would disqualify them — it probably would not, but it might deter them from getting the BCI and thus volunteering.

  4. It might, but in my experience it doesn’t happen that often, if at all. Everything is a cost/benefit – would the benefits of the BCI check outweigh the cost of the loss of individuals opting not to undergo the check? In the end, that’s the judgment that the school committee/volunteer program needs to make.

    I think Nancy’s right – at least from my perspective, it is a relation between the “offense” and the position sought.

    But if I can thump a drum that I thump occasionally, if there were better expungement laws that take into account, for example, multiple misdemeanors, or Certificates of Rehabilitation that at least provides a review of a person’s offense vis-a-vis “rehabilitation”, then perhaps the BCI’s wouldn’t be so much of an issue, particularly with so-called minor infractions.

  5. Jesse from Cranston | Reply

    On volunteers and BCI checks:

    Insisting on BCI checks for anyone who spends even a hours’ time with children in a school or at a school event is actually a good way to protect the school department’s liability. What is good for team coaches, in other words, should be good for casual volunteers.

    Especially with the concern over child predators, there’s no such thing as being too safe. Ask any law enforcement officer or psychiatrist, and it’s a good bet they’ll tell you that publicized loopholes in BCI check policies are precisely the kinds of things that attract child predators.

    On the school budget:

    Sorry to flog this point again, but I see absolutely no mention or suggestion about reducing administrative costs for the school department. Why is there no examination of the redundant (and costly) administrative positions at the Briggs Building? Why — again — has the school board dropped consolidation from its vocabulary?

    Oh, and what about privatizing bus services? Maybe this time, the school board could seriously look at the issue, instead of relying on the fallacious comparison of Warwick’s bus costs.

    Instead, we get ideas about cutting school lunch staff and turning principals into cashiers. This is penny ante stuff, nothing that will make a significant difference.

    Sorry, but I don’t see anyone taking the school board’s cries of poverty seriously, so long as they continue to fund the school department’s bloated administration, threaten enrichment programs, and sue at the first opportunity.

  6. Jesse from Cranston | Reply

    Here’s an update on the school budget issue:

    The ProJo had a report on Saturday about how the budget deficit has been cut to $182,000 from the original estimate of $3.9 million.

    Here’s the link: http://www.projo.com/ri/cranston/content/CRANSTON_SCHOOL_BUDGET_06-06-09_4OEKJBT_v32.3cd916d.html

    To which I say: Finally! (*Sort of.)

    At long last, it seems as though the school board has decided not to expect some magic windfall — they’re even holding aside the $1.7 million in expected stimulus money until the city gets it — and actually moved to lower some of the costs not associated with direct instruction of students (such as life insurance premiums and payroll costs).

    *Still, it didn’t happen without some pain: Middle school sports are gone, as are guidance counselors and school librarians and secretaries.

    So, unfortunately, the upper administration — which costs upwards of 25% of the entire school budget — has escaped untouched, yet again.

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