In addition to casting ballots for President Congress and local officials, Middletown voters will have the opportunity to vote on a number of changes to their town charter. Two of the changes would have an impact on the Middletown school district.
Question 9. “To provide that the council has the power to merge common duties, functions and/or services of any two or more agencies of departments of the town?”
Question 13. “To provide that all collective bargaining agreements affecting employees of any department, including the School Department, must be ratified by a majority vote of the town council before they become effective, and that the council shall not vote on such an agreement until it has in its possession for at least seven days a full and complete impact study detailing the short-term and long-term costs of the agreement?”
Question 9, is proposed to obstinately foster economy of scales through consolidation of school and municipal functions, but may not be practical in implementation and both Questions 9 & 13 may run contrary to state law.
RI General Law § 16-2-9 (a) states “The entire care, control, and management of all public school interests of the several cities and towns shall be vested in the school committees of the several cities and towns.”
In other communities merging finance departments between the school district and town have not been easily accomplished. Despite an initiative dating back to last year Westerly, in a cooperative volunteer effort between school and town officials, is still struggling to find an effective way to consolidate some of their finance functions. The reporting requirements to the state and federal government are daunting. Tracking complex Title 1 & Special Education, Perkins funds, RTTT grant monies, state appropriations and private education grants require an expertise and specialized skill set that transcends a mere accounting degree.
In East Providence the state run budget commission went forward with such a merger over the objections of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). RIDE cites the complexity of school finance as the reason the departments should remain separate. The Department and the General Assembly have invested considerable time and expense in implementing a Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA) § 16-2-9.4 School district accounting compliance. – (a) “The office of auditor general and the department of elementary and secondary education shall promulgate a uniform system of accounting, including a chart of accounts based on the recommendations of the advisory council on school finance, and require all accounts of the school districts, regional school districts, state schools and charter schools to be kept in accordance therewith;
The Rhode Island legislature created this comprehensive accounting system at the behest of the late Rep. Paul Crowley. Since its inception, successive legislatures have appropriated millions of dollars for its implementation and RIDE, along with the Auditor General, have spent time and money educating school business officials and independent auditors on the use of UCOA. No such system of accounting exists for towns. Were the responsibilities for school finance to accrue to the town, RIDE would have to retrain municipal officials in UCOA. This also presupposes that town finance officials meet RIDE’s current certification requirments for school business administrators.
With regard to consolidation of legal services, § 16-2-9 (g) states “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, whether of general or specific application, and notwithstanding any contrary provision of any city or town charter or ordinance, the elected school committee of any city, town and regional school district shall be, and is hereby authorized to retain the services of such independent legal counsel as it may deem necessary and convenient.”
This clearly affords the school committee the right to retain their own legal counsel.
How would municipal leaders consolidate technology services? The needs of school districts dwarf the needs of municipal government and districts deal with vast array of technology with policies for its use.
Giving the town council the power to veto collective bargain agreements undermines the negotiating process and ignores that school committees negotiate contracts that must comply with RIDE regulations and federal requirements. Uninformed to the nuances the negotiations the council may unwittingly sabotage the committee’s efforts to gain concessions that promote student learning and achievement.
What incentive is it for unions to negotiate in good faith when the ultimate ratification power lies with the council? In rejecting a negotiated contact will the council be putting the committee at risk for an unfair labor complaint? Will the council be subject to compulsory mediation statutes? Will they be subject to unfair labor charges or litigation?
Again Question 13, may violate § 16-2-9 (18) To enter into contracts. In his decision, on Exeter-West Greenwich Regional School District v. Exeter-West Greenwich Teachers' Association Superior Court Judge Gallo stated "The school committee and the towns of Exeter and West Greenwich argue that because the appropriating authority is a body distinct from the school committee, any contracts with the teachers or others are subject to the appropriating authority of the district financial meeting, and such contracts may be implemented only to the extent they are funded by the district financial meeting. They argue that the appropriating body has absolute authority in fiscal matters. That argument not only is incorrect but could also lead to chaos in the public school system."
What incentive is it for unions to negotiate in good faith when the ultimate ratification power lies with the council?
By empowering school committees in Title 16, the Rhode Island General Assembly fulfilled its constitutional obligation articulated in Article XII “to promote public schools”. Any diminution of that authority runs counter to the spirit if not the letter of the law and the Constitution. I would urge the voters of Middletown to err on the side of students and caution and vote no on Questions 9 & 13.
Timothy C. Duffy
Rhode Island Association of School Committees