From Three High Schools to One: Regionalizing Aquidneck?
Friday, May 20, 2011
There are a number of guiding documents and proposals on the table, ranging from work by a volunteer advisory committee to a mandated approach drawn from a military commission. All have their upsides, but as Middletown Public Schools Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger put it succinctly, “Ultimately it will be left to the voters to approve.”
RIPEC Study Leads the Way
The 2009 study recently updated by the RI Public Expenditure Council, the “Aquidneck Island Consolidation Feasibility Study,” has been a guiding light for the regionalization discussion.
Created in conjunction with the Aquidneck Island School/Municipal Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that includes school and town officials from Middletown, Newport and Portsmouth, perhaps its most telling finding has been that the island schools could realize a $12 million savings through regionalization.
As the communities worry out the report’s details, “There is a perception that somehow they haven’t realized how big the numbers are,” said Ashley Denault, a policy analyst for RIPEC.
“They see a deficit in their budget and think, ‘Well, it’s only one million dollars, we can fix that,’” said Denault. “It is hard to convey what it means. People have not done the behind-the-scenes wrangling this needs.”
Instead, at times discussions have gotten to the point of saying merging two high schools would limit the number of spots available on varsity sports teams, and inspired questions of “What would the mascot be?”
One very compelling argument for RIPEC’s various models is that when local education officials invoke the “We want a make sure our kids get the best education possible” mantra, they are backed up by a report by their allies at the New England School Development Council, who point out that all Rhode Island’s regional school districts – Bristol-Warren, Foster-Glocester, and Chariho (Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton,) – showed better academic results after joining forces.
RIPEC’s executive director John Simmons believes that Aquidneck Island is really where the consolidation effort could see some success.
“The Aquidneck Island model is the right model at the right time,” said Simmons.
“If this (local model) doesn’t occur on Aquidneck Island, then the state needs to re-evaluate. It needs to dis-incentivize state funding to move towards regionalization. Right now, the incentive to regionalize is not enough.”
“Each community has its own incentives to regionalize,” added Denault. “When they feel the financial squeeze from the state, it will make it easier.”
Local Advisory Committee Active
Newport School Committee member Dr. Charles Shoemaker has been leading the Aquidneck Island School/Municipal Advisory Committee since it began four years ago.
“Everyone on the advisory committee was very skeptical of regionalization at the beginning, but Sue Lusi (Portsmouth’s school superintendent) said ‘Let’s go take a look.’”
Shoemaker said that the main impediments to getting to true regionalization were “the great pride people have in their own community, and the control. This would be a significant shift in the culture. There is the concern the city councils have in losing control of finances. And there is the worry that if they merged the three union contracts, the unions would end up with the best of all worlds.”
“I was surprised…the last time we talked about this (at a public forum at which RIPEC presented) people realized these budget deficits are real – people are losing jobs and benefits. This is a house of cards that could come tumbling down, and regionalization is the only way to save it.”
“At that point, the financial savings will outweigh the cultural and control issues” that have hampered the consolidation effort, Shoemaker said.
While Aquidneck Island legislators have been working away at home, state Sen. Louis DiPalma, who represents Little Compton, Middletown, Newport and Tiverton, has been at the State House, coming at consolidation from a different, more far-ranging angle: shared services.
DiPalma is chair of the Senate Committee on Shared Municipal Services, and has sponsored legislation this year that would put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot for voters to “pursue the facilitation of shared municipal services for the purposes of achieving more economic, efficient and effective management of the state's overall resources." It sounds like a perfect match for Aquidneck Island.
Like RIPEC, he has a big target. A 2010 report by his committee pointed out what seems to be obvious: “At less than 2,000 square miles and population of 1.1. million, Rhode Island is divided into 39 municipal governments, 36 school districts, 38 police departments, and 80 individual fire jurisdictions…Sharing services would take advantage of the state’s relatively small size and population, while improving service delivery, pooling resources and saving significant tax dollars.”
"I want to do it yesterday, but how about doing it today,” said DiPalma. “How about achieving just a 20 percent reduction in efficiency and effectiveness.”
“At the end of the day, it saves property tax dollars,” he says, referring both to his initiative and the Aquidneck regionalization.
DiPalma believes that if he can slim down services by 20 percent through efficiency, he will be “making the best of a bad financial situation."
"Let’s use it to our benefit,” DiPalma said, by promoting initiatives like shared services. With the voters’ blessing, of course.
The BRAC Model
Regionalization has been floated before.
In 1993, Gov. Bruce Sundlun created the 21st Century Commission, co-chaired by Gary Sasse, even then one of RI’s leading economic advisors as head of the RI Public Expenditure Council, along with Lt. Gov. Roger Begin. One of their tasks was to look into regionalization of services, including the school districts. That concept was far from embraced at the time.
But it did leave Sasse with an idea about what might work.
Sasse suggests that a model for regionalization be that of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). The Department of Defense has used that process on Aquidneck Island recently as it made changes to its facilities at the Newport Navy Base.
The BRAC is described on its Web site as “the Commission (that) will provide an objective, non-partisan, and independent review and analysis… The Commission will follow a fair, open, and equitable process… the Commission will also take into account the human impact of the base closures and will consider the possible economic, environmental, and other effects on the surrounding communities.”
Sasse says, “It is the only way to do it” if people “are serious about regionalization.” While he worked in the administration of Governor Donald Carcieri, legislation to create such a process for education was twice introduced, “but the General Assembly didn’t want to hear about. It,” Sasse said.
What makes the BRAC model stand out is that it would be a mandated approach to regionalization and consolidation. It would involve having a commission do a detailed analysis of the situation, analyzing the efficiencies and variables involved, such as existing “legacy” costs like contracts and retirement benefits, among others, and create different ways to consolidate and coordinate services.
“I think it’s the only way for regionalization to be possible. On Aquidneck Island, efficiencies can be found, but for some reason they can’t pull the trigger. You get stuck in a gridlock. You need a process with discipline.” But also one with “a balance between efficiency and accountability.”
“You can put a process in place where people do actually vote, not just talk,” Sasse said.
Not Many Takers for BRAC
Most of the education and municipal leaders on Aquidneck Island believe that the BRAC model would be a tough sell, Sasse’s resolve notwithstanding.
Jo Eva Gaines and Charles Shoemaker of the Newport School Committee believe there is some chance it might work.
Gaines said, ““It has to be a mandate. It has to be ordered that we consolidate districts in this small state.”
“BRAC is one of the possibilities,” said Shoemaker. “Let’s go ahead and look at these possibilities.”
But even RIPEC’S Simmons said it would need a sea change for BRAC to replace the local model and the various options his organization has proposed. Most local legislators would shudder at how much community control would be sacrificed in a statewide referendum.
It Can Only Be Done At the Local Level
The Advisory Committee’s Shoemaker said, “My sense is that the General Assembly doesn’t want to tackle regionalization. They don’t have the guts for it.” he said. “My feeling is that if (the City Council or General Assembly) wants to come talk to us it could work. But it won’t get done by a resolution here or at the State House. It is like parental involvement (in the schools). You have to actually get involved.”
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