School district asks for legislative help curbing career and tech exodus

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School Committee Chairman Bob LaFazia welcomed Johnston state Reps. Deborah A. Fellela and Mario Mendez to the board’s March 10 meeting to ask for legislative help in curbing the amount of students leaving the district for career and technical education.

Shortly after, Johnston High School Principal Dennis Morrell explained new programming at the institution – such as two additional manufacturing courses and more honors and advanced placement computer science classes. He also noted that JHS was honored with the AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award from the College Board.

LaFazia said that, despite the career and technical expansion within Johnston, the Rhode Island Department of Education is “allowing them to go out” to places like the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center, or CACTC.

“This has to stop,” LaFazia told the delegation. “This is why we’re putting programs in our school system. We still have to fund them. It’s costing us a tremendous amount of funds, but yet they’re allowing them to go out of district, which is causing an impact on our budget. That’s Department of Ed. I don’t know where they’re coming from, and they have to help us somewhere along the line, and the only way that we can get this done is through legislation. We would appreciate any help the legislative body can do for us.”

Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo explained the history of the matter to Fellela (Dist. 43, Johnston) and Mendez (Dist. 13, Providence, Johnston). He said that, when the state regionalized career and technical education, Johnston was assigned to the Cranston West region.

However, as more high schools have moved toward pathways programs, regionalization has not been as prevalent. With students allowed to go wherever they choose, Johnston has felt the financial burden. He said the town’s out-of-district budget – which was only at $750,000 in 2009 – projects to be $2.5 million by 2021.

DiLullo said the number of out-of-district students from Johnston has sharply increased, from 29 to 71. He stressed that most of those are “higher achieving” children leaving Johnston, having an adverse impact on test scores, attendance and more.

“Basically what that creates in the district is an inequity because we are now spending $2.5 million out of our district, and it’s going to create an inequity by us reducing our services in district to cover that expense,” DiLullo said. “That is unfair to the students of Johnston, that is unfair to the taxpayers of Johnston who pay taxes to support the school district in the town they live in.”

DiLullo said that he had to submit an Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, request to obtain attendance and absenteeism rates from Cranston.

“It’s not that they would hand them over, I had to do an official request to get that information from those schools,” DiLullo said. “That’s a problem for us, and we need that funding to cover – and it’s great that kids can leave and go to other programs, but we need to have funding in the district to support our students.”

LaFazia was particularly concerned about the issue, saying the district has a difficult time obtaining grades for students as well. As far as absenteeism, LaFazia said that, when Johnston finally did review absenteeism rates, some students were missing upward of 60 days.

“They should’ve been brought back in, but Cranston’s not going to tell us anything because they want the funds,” LaFazia said. “Something has to be drawn somewhere along the line … the out-of-district busing is killing us as well.”

LaFazia said that the impending exodus of soon-to-be ninth-graders is “disheartening” as well. The district felt the impact in the first year freshmen were allowed in 2018-19, but LaFazia expects the next hit to be worse.

“I talked to Dr. D last week, and out of all the students that are leaving eighth grade and going into ninth, we have a third of that population going out,” LaFazia said. “It’s a huge impact. I know everybody says, ‘Well, the money follows the student.’ That’s not necessarily true because we still have the programs in place, we still have to fund those programs, we have to have the teachers in place, we have to have the software.”

Fellela told the board that the delegation would draft legislation and stay in communication. Vice Chair Joseph Rotella advocated for any submittal that would start a discussion.

“I’m sure that our district can’t be the only district that’s in that predicament, because if it’s happening to us, I’m sure it’s happening to all the schools in the state,” Rotella said. “Everybody is just really working in the same direction, it’s just difficult to get our job done when our resources keep getting drained off.”

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