Pearson’s plan would cap charter tuitions

Pearson’s plan would cap charter tuitions

But Cumberland still lagging in school support

CUMBERLAND – Sen. Ryan Pearson is seeking support for legislation that would cap Cumberland’s tuition payments to charter schools at a consistent $1.6 million per year, an amount that would save $2.2 million in this upcoming school budget.

According to Pearson’s plan, the Lincoln and Cumberland school districts would be responsible for the charter tuitions of the first 5 percent of the town’s school population attending charters, and the state would pick up any amount over that.

“The state needs to step in and pay that bill,” Pearson said.

Currently, 11 percent of Cumberland students and 10 percent of Lincoln students are attending charter schools, Pearson said.

Capping tuition payment at 5 percent of the students reduces Lincoln’s share to $1.7 million, according to Pearson, nearly the same as Cumberland’s $1.6 million. Also saving tuition costs under the bill would be Woonsocket, Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, Pearson said. Sen. Roger Picard, who represents Cumberland and Woonsocket, has also signed onto the bill.

Pearson is basing the 5 percent, he said, on the number used by Gov. Gina Raimondo and the state Department of Education last year in a density aid bill that both supported, providing small relief when the student population exceeded 5 percent.

While Pearson is pushing this cap on tuitions, he remains critical of Cumberland leaders for failing, he says, to acknowledge their share of local funding for schools during the seven years that’s seen the state slowly increase its contribution to the town’s students.

“From a pure funding obligation, the state has met its obligation. The town had seven years to work on this and hasn’t truly addressed it,” he said.

“I would encourage the council to seriously look at the funding formula and look at the town’s share. They need to come up with a plan to make sure the schools are funded effectively,” Pearson said.

At the same time, he says, “A place where the state has culpability is the state charter tuition.”

While the state continues to approve the growth of Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, he said, “it hasn’t provided funding, and that’s exacerbated the funding problem.”

“BVP exists,” he added. “It won’t go away, and to magically cut their funding, it would be very hard to unwind.”

According to Pearson, members of the Cumberland school board testified in favor of this bill last year, but the mayor and Town Council did not.

“Let me be clear. This does not negate the fact there’s a severe funding gap” between what the state identifies as the Basic Education Plan and what Cumberland provides, he said.

Talk of Cumberland’s school funding decisions typically generates cries about the state’s 4 percent cap on a tax levy increase.

Both Pearson and Jeff Mutter, who has served as head of both the School Committee and Town Council, are commenting on that.

Mutter urged School Committee members last week to reject the likely argument from town leaders “that our hands are tied” because of those state caps.

State law limits the amount of new money schools can request to 4 percent over the previous year, although towns may grant more provided they don’t exceed a 4 percent increase in the tax levy.

“Obviously, I’ve been through all this,” Mutter told the school board. “And it’s always these constraints.

“They’re just going to say, ‘I’d love to help you out, but I can’t do it.’

“You should petition the state legislature to have this conversation. If you do not remove the impediment, then they get to stand on the sideline and they get a free ride. If you make a proper argument, that will resonate with the Town Council.”

Mutter went on to suggest that in past years, “There has been some working together (between school board and council). There have been constructive solutions.”

He continued, “Don’t let people make decisions about funding by saying their hands are tied.”

Pearson countered in a comment to The Breeze that while communities may appeal to the state auditor general for relief from the cap, Cumberland is unlikely to prevail because “Cumberland never comes close to the cap.”