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Donna Perry: A Strike Against the Taxpayers’ Best Interests

Thursday, August 30, 2012


The fireworks that went off over North Kingstown’s school district this week seemed to fade from sight quickly as the courts ordered school staff to report to school after just one day on a picket line.

But the reality is, the underlying cause of what seemed to be an unexpected disruption to the start of the school year has been long in the making and opens a window on why communities, whether it’s North Kingstown or anywhere else, have so much trouble reducing costs, particularly in the school department.

An all too familiar narrative started unfolding Monday night as the statewide NEA machine pulled out the playbook, kicked into gear, steered union bodies from around the state toward North Kingstown, and suddenly a cost effective move by a School Committee involving just over two dozen jobs was under a full frontal attack.

It’s the outsourcing of 26 janitors’ jobs, and possibly other school jobs in the days to come, that ended up hijacking progress that seemed underway in separate contract negotiations involving school aides or paraprofessionals. Make no mistake about it: it was an NEA staged and scripted stunt that not only held hostage the first day of school, but produced the additional spectacle of parents unknowingly placing children on school buses before learning they would be met with a picket line rather than greeted by school staff for their first day.

It went so far as having signs proclaiming “Economic Violence” paraded in front of media cameras. One can only hope most school kids were not exposed to an undoubtedly confusing reference to violence, (perpetrated by whom? town officials trying to cut costs?) on a sign carried by someone who works in their school.

To be fair, some who side with the union’s defense of the custodians note there are an excessive number of overly compensated administrator level staff positions that never seem to be on the firing line and that is likely an assessment that has some merit.

But when a school committee can identify a savings of roughly half a million dollars, which privatizing the custodians is projected to do, it can’t ignore the option nor the option of further outsourcing savings down the line. ( The union ally school committee member who pointed to an expected surplus as justification for hiring back the janitors seems to ignore the benefit of redirecting a surplus to other needs rather than use it up to maintain the status quo.)

This week’s North Kingstown brouhaha is really just one small chapter in a much wider saga about attaining more affordable communities in Rhode Island. How will the cost of local government in this state ever match the local residents’ ability to pay, when attempts to shrink the size and cost of the employee ranks, whether within the school systems, or in other areas are met with such a repetitive well-rehearsed shove back?

In the coming days, the RI Statewide Coalition, RISC, will unveil a Taxpayers’ Issues Platform for the fall campaigns for state Legislature which sets as one of its wider goals the attainment of more affordable communities in Rhode Island. Rather than issuing individual endorsements for candidates in specific house and senate district races, this year RISC will point to an index of issue areas, ranging from votes and track records on pension reform and municipal spending; to positions on tax rates and economic development loan programs; to education reform. Though these issues cover wide ground, they fall under an umbrella goal of making Rhode Island communities more affordable for average Rhode Islanders and more in line with comparable communities elsewhere.

As we roll out the Taxpayers’ Platform, we will urge voters to assess whether incumbents and new challengers in their districts fit the profile of a legislator who is working for the best interests of their community and taxpayers—or working against them. Though the picket line in North Kingstown held back school for just one day, it ultimately represents a distinctive strike against the taxpayers’ best interests that has far reaching implications in the days to come.

Donna Perry is the Executive Director of RISC, RI Statewide Coalition - http://www.statewidecoalition.com


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