Mayor's blue ribbon commission on education short on recommendations

Mayor's blue ribbon commission on education short on recommendations

Its counterpart, a council-appointed board, wants town to commit to schools

CUMBERLAND – A blue ribbon commission started by Mayor Bill Murray last year is offering “no official recommendations” about whether local schools are being properly funded, said Chairman Jim Thorsen, but is still offering valuable information to the town.

Thorsen, of Cumberland, conceded that he intended to make recommendations when the commission started out, but due to a lack of consensus and a feeling among members that they shouldn't make comments about the “mind-numbingly complex" management of schools, members decided against it. The panel is wrapping up its work this month.

Members did offer individual comments to Murray, gave some constructive criticism of the Cumberland School Department, and provided financial information about the town that could be useful, he said.

The mayor's blue ribbon advisory commission on education presented its final report to the Town Council at a meeting last Wednesday, April 4. The committee will present findings at a forum next Tuesday, April 17, at 6:30 p.m. in meeting room two of the Cumberland Public Library.

Also presenting at last Wednesday's meeting was Jeff Mutter, former Town Council president and chairman of the School Committee, on behalf of a separate educational funding and development commission established by the council.

Mutter said that commission reached enough consensus to make recommendations. These include a strong endorsement of the Cumberland Public Schools strategic plan's call for investments in schools to take the district from ninth best to a top-five district across all grade levels.

Schools Supt. Bob Mitchell met with the board several times, outlining investments that would be needed to make Cumberland a top-five school, said member Armen Casparian. Members are urging the council to pass a resolution to affirm a commitment to the goal, said Casparian.

Murray said he felt his blue ribbon commission did “exactly what I wanted to be done,” which was to have people with “vast experience” offer opinions on school funding, as he tries to get a handle on future needs and spending. Thorsen spoke to the Town Council last week “as a courtesy,” Murray said, but the findings of the report were really “for my own edification.”

The report from the blue ribbon commission discusses, among other things:

• Cumberland per-pupil spending being the lowest in the state

• Future projected funding gaps

• The biggest cost drivers for schools, particularly salaries

• The percentage of school funding related to the town budget

• The town's strong financial position

• Staffing and enrollment trends

• Evidence that Cumberland families are struggling financially and may not be able to absorb large spending increases

“We want school excellence, and that requires significant funding,” Thorsen told the Town Council, but taxpayer ability to pay is in question.

Though no official recommendations were made, said Thorsen, he recommends that budgets not be increased more than inflation or the rate of economic growth. He suggested one of the only ways for schools to save money is by eliminating salaries.

Both education funding advisory commissions agreed that officials need to make a decision on what an appropriate fund balance is for the schools.

Another recommendation of the council-appointed board was that the council as the funding authority should sign off on the fiscal note for any collective bargaining agreement with school unions.

The council's board, led by Mutter, also recommended that a town-wide survey be done to see what the appetite is for increasing funding to schools, and to take advantage of school aid construction reimbursements.

School officials are being good stewards of the money they have, said Mutter, and there's “no data point to suggest otherwise.”

Members of the council-appointed committee included council members Tom Kane and James Metivier, School Committee members Stephen Hess and William Dennen, School Business Manager Alex Prignano, Cumberland Finance Director Jason Parmelee, town resident Armen Casparian, Blackstone Valley Prep's Christine Losea and Jessica Waters, and Cumberland resident Linda Teel.

Members of the mayor-appointed committee included Kristen Sukatos, of the Cumberland School Volunteers, Melissa Travis, commercial sales director for HealthSource RI and chairwoman of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, Brian Silvia, former Cumberland finance director and current city treasurer in Warwick, and Tony Nobrega, former councilor and school board member. Also called in to advise the committee were former school board members Erika Sanzi and Tom Letourneau, former school board member and council member Don Costa, and former Town Councilor Art Lambi.

Councilor Kane, who originally suggested starting a second education funding advisory board last year, questioned Thorsen at the April 4 meeting about whether the mayor-appointed board had any recommendations.

Thorsen responded that no, there are no official ones.

Kane said he's eager to see a resolution come before leaders to see how many will support the goal of doing what it takes to improve the district's ranking.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu challenged Thorsen's suggestion that Cumberland taxpayers would struggle to invest more in schools, asking him for data to back up the claim. She said the percentage of money going to schools has actually gone down. In 2012, $5.28 of the $15.61 tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value was going to the town, while $10.33 was going to schools. In 2017, the town's number was up to $5.48, and the schools were down to $9.73.

Thorsen asked her where she got her figures, and Beaulieu said it was from her own tax bill.

Casparian also asked Thorsen about his suggestion that Cumberland residents are struggling financially. Thorsen provided a list of foreclosure deeds by year showing 43 foreclosures in 2014, 23 in 2015, 43 in 2016, and 15 in 2017.

While Cumberland shows evidence of being a well-to-do community, many people are struggling, added Thorsen.

Casparian asked whether the foreclosure numbers were compared to other communities, and Thorsen said they were not.

In 2012, 4.5 percent of residents were living under the poverty level, said Thorsen, and that number rose to 7 percent in 2016. Twenty-five percent of the town is now older than 60, and one in three homes is receiving Social Security income.

Cumberland School Committee Chairman Ray Salvatore, who filed an open meetings complaint against Murray last year when the mayor said commission meetings would be held in private, and lost that challenge, said, when asked for a response to Thorsen's presentation, that he was disappointed by the report. His understanding was that recommendations should be made on developing future town budgets, he said, yet none came out.

Thorsen claimed that many taxpayers are unable or unwilling to pay any increase in taxes without substantiation, noted Salvatore. If residents were allowed in meetings, they might better understand why the board was unable to reach a consensus.

Salvatore thanked Kane for coming up with the idea for the council's commission and said he was impressed with Beaulieu's comments on school funding.

Salvatore said the council's commission did lots of digging into data on town, district schools and Blackstone Valley Prep spending, all with the goal of coming up with real recommendations.

“I like that the Town Council’s commission essentially has challenged elected officials to demonstrate their commitment to our schools,” he said.