Supreme Court affirms ruling in school funding suit by Pawtucket, Woonsocket

Supreme Court affirms ruling in school funding suit by Pawtucket, Woonsocket

WOONSOCKET – Affirming a previous ruling that the decision of how to fund public education is solely the responsibility of the Rhode Island General Assembly, a state Supreme Court judge has dismissed an appeal by school committees of Woonsocket and Pawtucket challenging the state's school funding formula.

The plaintiffs, which included unnamed students, parents and the superintendents from both districts, alleged that the formula fails to allocate adequate resources to the state's less affluent communities.

Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel dismissed the case in 2012, citing the separation of powers doctrine, which states that Rhode Island has three separate and distinct departments of government.

A decision issued by Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttell this week affirmed that ruling.

"In our opinion, the factual allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint make a strong case to suggest that the current funding system is not beneficial to students in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, especially when compared to other municipalities," the ruling states. "We are sensitive to plaintiffs’ concerns, and yet our prior case law clearly declares that the General Assembly has exclusive authority to regulate the allocation of resources for public education."

Defendants in the case included Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Sen. President Teresa Paiva-Weed, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, Treasurer Gina Raimondo and the entire Rhode Island General Assembly. The plaintiffs were represented by Sam Zurier, an attorney who is also a member of the Providence City Council along with co-counsel Steve Robinson. They contended, in part, that the assembly fell short in its constitutional duty to promote public schools as governed by the Rhode Island Constitution's Education Clause.

"Few responsibilities of government are as important as providing for the education of children; few issues are as passionately debated by citizens as the appropriate way to meet that responsibility," wrote Suttell. "Our prior case law reveals that the Education Clause has always been interpreted in a manner that grants the General Assembly broad discretion in carrying out its constitutional duty to promote public education in Rhode Island."

Still, Suttell admitted, the funding situation in both districts presented by the plaintiffs is cause for concern.

"We emphasize that we are deeply concerned by the conditions of the schools in Pawtucket and Woonsocket as alleged by plaintiffs, as well as by the alleged predicaments of those municipalities regarding their inabilities to allocate the funding required to meet state mandates."