Round-table talks pinpoint school funding frustrations

Round-table talks pinpoint school funding frustrations

CUMBERLAND - First, School Committee Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu used a slide show to identify a gap in taxpayer support of schools - $8.2 million - based on a state formula that calculates Cumberland's average income and property values.

Later, school board member Craig Duffy looked at the state's top 10 performing high schools to show that local funding for each far exceeds Cumberland's annual commitment. Whether from student-teacher ratio to per-pupil spending to annual increases, he said, taxpayers in those town are doing better by their high schools.

Their two presentations before five members of the Town Council and the entire school board a week ago Wednesday addressed two of five friction points between the two elected boards: state and local aid to schools and citizens' ability and willingness to step up local funding.

Elected officials, who've all expressed a commitment to education, are clearing up questions and sorting through typical points of conflict in a series of joint meetings well in advance of budget discussions.

During an October meeting, five topics were culled from a couple of dozen ideas that members of both boards identified during the first round-table forum facilitated by psychologist Peter Langton, a Cumberland resident who teaches industrial and organizational psychology at Wheaton College and holds a corporate human relations position.

The other three were:

* Long-term planning

* The "divide" over Mayoral Academy charter schools

* How town and schools might collaborate to save money

Topics were divided up and one school board and one council member assigned to each.

Observing the two-hour round-table discussion last week, but not commenting, were Mayor Daniel McKee a Supt. Phil Thornton.

The next meeting was tentatively set for Feb. 20.

Duffy, who represents District 2, selected the state's top 10 high schools based on a survey by the online daily news publication GoLocal Prov and School Digger report. Cumberland High was ranked 34th by GoLocalProv and 24th by School Digger, said Duffy.

The 10 he picked are: Barrington, Narragansett, Portsmouth, Smithfield, Tiverton, East Greenwich, Chariho, South Kingstown, Scituate and Exeter-W. Greenwich.

Saying, "We all want our school to be in the top 10," he looked at a series of markers that he says characterize top-10 communities' commitment to schools.

Council member Art Lambi, assigned to work with Duffy, said their goal was to be factual "so taxpayers have facts about whether they would be willing to pay a little more."

According to Duffy's research:

* All 10 spend more per pupil than Cumberland's $12,294, with the average being $15,839.

All but South Kingstown have increased property taxes more in the past five years, for an average of 27 percent, than Cumberland's 18 percent increase.

* For each, the student-teacher ratio is lower than Cumberland's 15-1 ratio, with most 9-1 or 10-1.

* Average SAT scores at 71 points for the 10 than Cumberland's 1560.

* The combined NECAP scores on average are 49 points higher than Cumberland.

Duffy went on to cite data that found high performing schools insulate a community from the recession on housing values.

Duffy and Lambi had actually been charged with answering the question about taxpayers' willingness to spend more on schools.

Duffy cited the $30 million bond voters overwhelmingly supported to upgrade and expand the high school, but said he couldn't answer the question without a survey of residents.

Beaulieu, who was elected at-large to the board, crunched numbers based on an established formula to assert that Cumberland schools should currently be funded at $64.84 million, some $11.4 million beyond the current $53.4 million.

That includes $20.5 million that's currently allocated to operational expenses such as transportation, meals and utilities.

But Beaulieu's focus was on all other spending, what's called the Basic Education Plan, or BEP. That's the money directed at instruction, from teachers salaries to textbooks to assessments.

She added, "We need a more educated understanding of what's going on."

The funding gap, said Beaulieu, is $3.25 million in state aid and $8.2 million in town support.

Every dollar from the state is supposed to support BEP, she noted.

The state, she said, is incrementally making up for its share by increasing aid by $700,000 a year.

The town, on the other hand, is limited by state and local cap on increases to about $1.5 million, and that assumes no added funds for any town increases.

Member Jeff Mutter noted two conflicts between the two state directives: the 2010 BEP mandate that communities fully fund the BEP according to the community's financial ability and the 2006 tax cap known as Senate-3050 that holds a town's levy increase to 4 percent a year.

Beaulieu went on to explain that budget demands see the schools funding non-BEP operational costs first then allotting the remaining funds to instructional costs, or BEP.

Those non-BEP costs are going up some 5 percent a year, she said.

To close the funding gap, she suggests, the schools must decrease non-BEP costs and increase tax revenue.

Beaulieu called the non-BEP costs, "a drag on instructional needs," and generally inflexible. Some 25 percent goes to charter and special needs tuition, 22 percent to teacher retirement benefits, 22 percent to utilities and maintenance, 11 percent to transportation, and 9 percent to food service.

At the same time, she said, arts, language, music classes have been scaled back in recent years.

"There's nothing new in athletics and we have incredibly old textbooks. We absolutely, without question, need to close the funding gap," she said.

Comments

Let's just cut to the chase and stop with all the BS. All I have read here is that the schools need more money and that property taxes have to go up. WHAT A SURPRISE! We are falling behind because we've increased property taxes by ONLY 18% in the last 5 years! SHAME! Parents in Cumberland don't care about their children's education! ENOUGH ALREADY! We all have heard ENOUGH! I would feel better if you just looked me in the eye and told me that the schools will NEVER have enough money, and that they will continue to need more (AND MORE!) every single year! The $30 million bond started out as 3 separate $5 million bonds, but, due to overwhelming support based on false promises of a renovated 50+ year old high school (that we STILL need!), soon after was manipulated into TWICE that amount. I am still heart sick about all those beautiful trees being cut down to make room for the new "barn" out front. These talks might have brought out frustrations, but it also showed that they ALL want the same thing...MORE TAXPAYERS' MONEY!

From the prospective of someone who just purchased a home in Cumberland I found the town appealing because the cost-per-student and test scores were able to compete with those "Top 10" high schools. Any strategic investment should have a long term ROI that offsets the year-over-year inflation of everyday costs.

A majority of those towns on the Top 10 aren't even a close comparison to the demographics of Cumberland. It wouldn't take long to compare census data of each of the towns that you believe are outperforming Cumberland.