Speaker Fox: Why Rhode Island Needs Gist

Saturday, January 22, 2011


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In an exclusive interview, House Speaker Gordon Fox tells GoLocalProv why Education Commissioner Deborah Gist is so important to Rhode Island. He also speaks out on the proposed three-tiered diploma system, gay marriage, and Providence’s budget crisis.

Gist ‘shook the tree’
The future of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist remains unclear under Governor Lincoln Chafee, given their very public differences over such issues as charter schools. Fox readily admits that Gist is a controversial figure—which is just what he says Rhode Island needs.

“I think she’s tackling some sensitive issues, but I think somebody needs to address sensitive issues,” Fox said. “I respected her coming in because sometimes in a small state, especially like Rhode Island where everyone knows one another, you don’t really shake the tree. Probably you should shake the tree because we know each other so well we don’t want to make it personal. That freed her up to come in and some would say that was a bad thing but I feel it was a pretty good thing that she came in, decided we would start looking into some areas.”

He said her work as commissioner has all been done with an eye toward the best performance of students. “Ultimately shouldn’t that be what education is all about?” Fox said. “I’m a big believer that public education is a great creative opportunity for people and it’s a great equalizer and so we need it. And so for that reason, plus many more, I’m a big supporter of hers.”

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Fox said he’s “talked briefly” with Chafee about Gist but had no “formal” conversations about her future. Before considering a replacement after her contract expires, Fox says he would like to have that formal conversation with Chafee about keeping the commissioner in place.

Three-tiered diploma ‘harsh and misguided’
Despite being a strong supporter of Gist, Fox questions one of her most recent high-profile efforts to reform the system. He says her proposal for a three-tiered high school diploma had good intentions behind it, but is the wrong approach.

“That’s such an eternal document in your life that if forever you got the 'bronze' diploma … your diploma really doesn’t mean as much,” Fox said. “And I know where she’s trying to go with that. I know what the regents are trying to do with it—it’s to make everyone strive for the 'gold.'"

He added: “Just my gut—I don’t know if that’s necessarily the way to go. If it really is to achieve excellence in the classroom, I think we have other ground to cover before we get to doing something like that. So I admire the goal of what it’s trying to do … get excellence in the classroom—and I support that wholeheartedly, but the mechanism may be a little harsh and misguided.”

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Providence’s budget crisis
The problems that Central Falls is dealing with are affecting other communities as well, including Providence, Fox said. “I know that those are not individual to Central Falls, relative to pension obligations, to other post employment benefits that go along with pensions, and I know that Providence is one of those communities. There are several others,” Fox said.

This session, Fox is putting together a special commission to examine the financial health of Central Falls along with other cities and towns. “I put this commission (together) not so much to deal with just Central Falls but also look at what’s going on in other municipalities and whether there are protocols that should be established for intervention or support prior ... to the point where you’re having to have a battle over whether a receiver should be appointed to a city or town,” Fox said.

He said financial failure in Providence—or any other community—would have a statewide impact. “If any municipality—especially our capital city—should fail, I think the State of Rhode Island fails and that’s troubling to me,” Fox said. “I am concerned about the fiscal integrity of all cities and towns in Rhode Island and especially Providence because it is the capital city and it’s the economic center of the state.”

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What’s the final solution for Central Falls?
First, the city declared insolvency and went to court for help. Then the state stepped in and appointed its own receiver. Now the state-appointed receiver says the city’s problems are so big it will take another state intervention to solve them. What’s the final solution for the state’s tiniest city? Fox isn’t sure yet—but he says the House will know soon enough.

“That’s what we’re going to have the commission for—to see what’s actually going on there, what caused it, and ultimately then conclude to what’s the end game,” Fox said. “I think it’s premature right now to answer what I think the end game is, but I think we do need to have an end game for Central Falls in particular and hopefully come out of there with some standards, protocols, and practices that I think would benefit the rest of the communities as well.”

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Concerns over statewide pension system
One recommendation from the Central Falls receiver is the establishment of a single statewide pension system that would put an end to the disorganized patchwork of local pensions systems. But Fox worries that absorbing all the local pensions system into a state plan, like the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS), could backfire. “I’m not one of those who say, ‘OK, let’s just take them all, statutorily, put them into MERS and go for it because you may end up destroying it,” Fox said.

When will the House produce a budget?
“That is a question for the Governor. When is he going to get it to us? We don’t start vetting it until we get it,” Fox said. “The Governor sets the starting line. We don’t propose a hearing on a budget until obviously we see a budget.” He said new administrations have an additional two weeks to submit a budget—but has not yet heard whether Chafee will take the extra time or not.

Gay Marriage: ‘It’s time’
Fox, an avowed supporter of gay marriage, told GoLocalProv he expects there will be a vote on it in the House in February. “It’s a definite priority. I’ve been in this building for—this is my 19th year. And the one thing I’ve learned in this building is that there’s certain times to take certain action and I think now is the time,” Fox said. “I mean it’s been a lot of years.”

Plus, he added, that will allow the House to then focus on the economy for the rest of the session. “We need to focus on the economy. We need to focus on a balanced budget. We need to focus on working on long-term solutions to economic problems,” Fox added. “And I’d like to get honed in on doing that kind of stuff with the marriage equality issue behind us.”


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