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It gets harder and harder each time I sit down to write this column. This is because there are just so many things to write about locally, state-wide and nationally.
Locally, the annual tug of war over the school budget is in full swing. The town council appropriated a two-percent increase over last yearâ€™s property tax revenue to the school department. At the same time they decided to cut the amount of state aid included in the school district budget by $600,000. This is probably in response to the judgeâ€™s ruling in March which implied that the town is responsible to make up a shortfall in state aid. (The town filed a 43-page memorandum of law with the court seeking clarification of this matter.)
When Superintendent Philip Auger made his budget presentation to the school committee in February, he laid out three scenarios. The first assumed a maximum four-percent increase in property tax appropriation. Dr. Auger identified $1.4 million in â€ścutsâ€ť that would be required if this were to happen. This is the budget that was approved by the committee and presented to the town council.
Second, he presented an additional $868,000 in â€ścutsâ€ť that would result from a two-percent increase in funding. These, he said, ate into the margin of excellence North Kingstown schools enjoyed. Included were reductions in some teacher and support positions, elective classes at the high school, bus service, and the elimination of boys ice hockey, girls gymnastics, swimming, tennis and golf teams and freshman sports programs.
But wait, said the superintendent at last weekâ€™s school committee meeting, weâ€™ve found some â€śexpenditure changesâ€ť that will result in $105,000 less than budgeted for next year. This in spite of recognizing once again that cafeteria operations are going to lose $186,000. (How much longer are North Kingstown taxpayers expected to subsidize the jobs of part-time cafeteria workers in the last district-operated food service department in the state?)
Finally, Dr. Auger outlined another $1.6 million in â€ścutsâ€ť that are needed to balance the budget at the two-percent increase level. However, the superintendent told the school committee to hold off because if $581,000 in state aid cut by the council materialized and if over $1 million in concessions could be wrung out of the support personnel bargaining unit, the third tier of cuts would not have to be made.
During citizenâ€™s comments Education Support Professionals (ESP) union president Sandy Blankenship decried an email sent by the superintendent. She said the implication was that responsibility for saving the jobs of custodians and paraprofessionals and high and middle school sports rested on the union making concessions. I thought the email was innocuous.
I put the word â€ścutsâ€ť in quotes because it is a paradox of government thinking that proposed budgets have to be compared to the current and prior yearâ€™s approved budgets. This is not the way private industry looks at budgets and frankly, who cares what the budget for this year is?
What we should be shown is how the proposed budget compares to the projected actual spending in the current fiscal year. For example, the superintendentâ€™s presentation lists as a â€ścutâ€ť adding a half-time â€śsupervisor of physical plantâ€ť next year.
In fact, that position has been vacant since the end of fiscal year 2011. The former director of administration picked up some of these responsibilities. So it is hard to understand how filling a position that has been vacant for a year with a â€śpoint-five FTEâ€ť is a â€ścut.â€ť
The school committee deadlocked at approving the superintendentâ€™s second tier of cuts on a 3-3 vote. Committee counsel Mary Ann Carroll advised them that the budget had to be balanced before June 30th. Since it is unlikely that the amount of state aid will be known by then and the arbitratorâ€™s decision may not be handed down, it is hard to see how the school committee can put off voting on the superintendentâ€™s recommendations.
Oddly enough, Committeeman Welch, who voted against the cuts, said, â€śAll weâ€™re doing is putting off the inevitable.â€ť
n As an indication of how much some in government want to control our lives, our esteemed state senate passed a bill that would prohibit anyone less than eighteen years of age from using a tanning booth unless she or he had a note from a doctor.
I suggested that my representative propose amending the bill when it got to the House. The amendment would require the Environmental Police to patrol all state beaches from mid-May to mid-September enforcing a law that requires anyone under eighteen to wear a long-sleeve shirt, pants and a hat between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Those caught exposing themselves to the harmful rays of the sun between those hours would have to have a note from a physician, nurse practitioner or physicianâ€™s assistant or be able to demonstrate that she or he had applied a sunscreen with an SFP of at least 50 within the last 30 minutes.
Not to be outdone, South Kingstown Sen. Susan Sosnowski (D) introduced a bill that would prohibit smoking in a car in which children are passengers. Police, I guess, would reprimand the offender. It isnâ€™t clear whether this would apply to those smoking â€śmedical marijuanaâ€ť which, I believe, Sen. Sosnowski supports.
n A couple of weeks ago, Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist admitted to a gathering of teachers that the new evaluation system for the stateâ€™s 10,500 teachers and 450 administrators is still not ready to go live. (Do you think this would fly in the private sectior?)
Part of the controversial system is based on student and school test scores and could result in loss of teacher certification or even dismissal.
Hereâ€™s the rub: under this system, a teacher has to be rated as â€śineffectiveâ€ť five years in a row and be given â€śextra supportâ€ť before she or he may lose their certification. So, five consecutive years of students can have an ineffective teacher in their classroom before he or she may possibly be removed.
How would you feel if you learned the pilot of the airplane you were boarding or the endodontist about to do root canal therapy on you was rated as â€śineffectiveâ€ť on their last evaluation?
n Apparently same-sex marriage has become the litmus test for politicians in this yearâ€™s election â€“ at least in the liberal mediaâ€™s eyes. Surveys have shown that marriage has become less important among heterosexual couples â€“ even those who have children together. Am I the only one perplexed by the insistence of homosexual couples that they be given the â€śrightâ€ť to marry?
Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. His opinions are his own.