The Westerly Sun

PROVIDENCE — After several months of hearings, the Special Legislative Task Force to Study Rhode Island’s Education Funding Formula has released its report. The 188-page document contains several recommendations which, if implemented, would be helpful to Chariho and the state’s other regional school districts. 

The 11 senators who comprise the task force began meeting in October. No legislators from southern Rhode Island were on the panel and Chariho did not make a presentation.

Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, was among the state legislators at the January Chariho Omnibus meeting who promised to continue efforts to resolve the school district’s perennial issues. Kennedy questioned the lack of representation on the panel from the southern part of the state.

“The lack of any membership from such a large section of southwest Rhode Island is problematic, since it dismisses input from both Chariho Regional as well as the Exeter-West Greenwich regional school district,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know if input was sought by the Senate committee during their meetings or if they chose to ignore regional schools … The current funding formula is not working and is biased against regional schools and suburban districts in favor of the inner city school districts.”

Sen. Ryan W. Pearson, D-Cumberland, who chaired the task force, said the panel’s work had generated interest throughout  Rhode Island.

“Of the many topics we have taken on in the legislature, the outpouring of interest from every corner of the state has been impressive,” he wrote in the introduction to the report. “This is indicative of the strong base of Rhode Islanders who are dedicated to the cause of improving our schools.”

Financial issues of particular interest to the Chariho district include declining state transportation aid; a volatile state funding formula; the district’s tuition obligations to charter schools; and increasing competition from career and technical programs offered by other school districts.

The report recommends that the state expand categorical transportation aid to reimburse school districts for transportation costs for students in foster care, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Interim Superintendent of Schools Jane Daly said she was pleased to see that the task force had addressed the issue of transportation aid. “It’s been something we’ve been asking for for years, so we’re thrilled that we’ve been heard,” she said.

School Committee chair Ryan Callahan said he had hoped the task force would also require the Rhode Island Department of Education to reveal the formula it uses to calculate transportation aid.

“The thing that they stopped short of doing, which I wish they had, would be to compel RIDE to establish a clear and transparent formula that all the districts have access to,” he said. “ Right now, how aid is calculated is very opaque. We need RIDE to be very transparent, so the districts are aware of the potential impact or potential costs. We can budget for things. Every year, we are left in the dark until the governor come up with some number based off some formula.”

Susan Rogers, Chariho’s director of finance and administration, agreed that the lack of transparency made it impossible to know how much aid the school district should be receiving.

“We run into this problem every year when people ask, ‘What should you have gotten for the categorical transportation aid?’” she said. “I can’t back into that number. The only way that I’ve known that we’ve gotten that information is from someone at RIDE, so there are a lot of formulas out there that they were supposed to use, but we can’t figure them out.”

Chariho would also benefit from a proposed change in state policy on career and technical programs. Chariho Tech has lost students to other school districts that have launched competing programs, and Chariho is responsible for paying the cost of transportation for those students. The task force recommends that if programs in both districts are of equal quality, the superintendent can decide whether a student can attend a program in another district.

“We have a number of students this year who live in Chariho but are trying to go out of district for career and tech programs that we offer in Chariho,” Callahan said. “That’s completely insane … It would allow us to basically say ‘No, we offer those services in Chariho.’”

Daly agreed that the recommendation, if implemented, would provide relief for Chariho.

“If the district offers a program, we feel that if we offer it, then the students that live here, that’s the program they should be going to, so it’s great that that’s being tackled,” she said.

Another recommendation pertains to charter schools. Currently, school districts are required to pay the transportation and tuition costs for children who attend charter schools elsewhere, and the transportation cost for students in private schools. The report calls for reducing the sending district’s financial obligation if the district is deemed high-performing.

“We welcome the competition and the fact that if we are high-performing, that would be looked at in terms of the cost,” Daly said.

The recommendations were submitted to the state Senate on Tuesday and would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

“I think they took a good, holistic approach to Rhode Island schools in general and we have a pretty diverse set of schools in the sense of urban to suburban,” Callahan said. “The topics they bring out, though, some of them won’t be very impactful to Chariho, but I need to understand a little bit more the details of their recommendations to gauge the magnitude. But there are a number of them that are directly related to Chariho and are specifically things that we wanted addressed.”

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4

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