In Johnston, and in most Rhode Island municipalities, residents choose their representatives on the School Committee by casting ballots on Election Day.
A quiet movement to end that process, and appoint School Committee members rather than elect them, has started bubbling up in a handful of communities.
The Pawtucket Charter Review Commission, for example, briefly considered putting the question before the voters as early as this fall (earlier this week, however, they decided to delay the decision and continue prolonged discussions on the possible switch).
In response to an online post by a Boston Globe reporter about Pawtucket’s debate over an appointed or elected School Committee, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. voiced his support for the idea.
The journalist posted a link to the paper’s story, “Amid controversies, Pawtucket could scrap elected school committee,” on the social networking app formerly known as Twitter (now dubbed “X” by owner Elon Musk). She quoted one of the city’s current committee members who called the proposal “political retribution.”
Polisena responded with the question: “How is it political retribution if voters approve changes?”
“Schools get majority funding from local municipalities, yet munis have no say in how it’s spent,” Polisena wrote in Tuesday afternoon’s post, several hours before Johnston’s School Committee met for their regular monthly meeting. “Schools can also go over budget and municipalities are forced to pick up the debt. I’ve seen it firsthand.”
Since becoming mayor eight months ago, Polisena has sparred with the town’s school committee. He proposed a “takeover” of school finances in response to a string of school budget deficits. Now, the town’s finance director will lead his administration’s effort to comb the school district’s books, which are also under examination by a town-hired auditing firm.
On June 22, in response to the takeover bid, School Committee Chairman Robert LaFazia vowed to resist the “takeover.”
“Mayor Polisena Jr. announced a misguided effort to take over the Johnston School Department,” he said. “Let me be clear: under no circumstances will we agree to allow the Mayor to ‘take over’ the District.”
Both the town and the schools hired their own attorneys to handle potential litigation.
Polisena enlisted former Cranston mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial and congressional candidate Republican Allan Fung to represent the town.
Soon after, LaFazia and the School Committee took a more conciliatory tone, promising to work with auditors and fiscal examiners.
The long-serving chairman bristled at the idea of an appointed school committee.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’d be totally against that,” LaFazia said Tuesday night, after the meeting, in response to Polisena’s public online post. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
LaFazia took a closer look at the mayor’s words.
“The people of the district,” LaFazia said, pausing, upset by the proposal. “(This) would take that vote away from them. I believe it’s up to the individuals in the district to vote on their School Committee person. If he’s going to do that, then he might as well do away with the (town) council too.”
Johnston’s Town Charter, like Pawtucket’s, is about to be altered, updated and edited by a Charter Review Commission, which is currently taking shape.
Last month, Town Council members started naming their appointments to the commission. And on Tuesday night, the Johnston School Committee unanimously appointed one of their own to serve on the review commission, Susan Mansolillo.
Mansolillo survived a challenge to her seat on the School Committee during the same election that gave Polisena the mayor’s office following his father’s forced departure (the senior Polisena served four four-year terms, reaching the term limit he himself had established).
“Elected school committee members represent the people from the district,” Mansolillo said Tuesday after the meeting. “Appointed school committee members do the mayor’s bidding. That’s just how I feel. We’re here to represent the people and do what’s best for the children.”
Mansolillo said she expects the topic to come up once the Johnston Charter Review Commission holds its first meeting.
Reached by email later Tuesday night, Polisena expanded on the idea of an appointed (rather than elected) school committee.
“I don’t have the power to propose or institute this, it must be approved by the voters,” Polisena wrote. “However, I think every municipality needs to have some say in their own school districts, as the municipality provides the school department the majority of its funding with municipal property taxes.”
Polisena thinks the entire state should rethink its approach to school governance. He provided examples from other New England states.
“The current model in Rhode Island simply isn’t working, both from a financial standpoint and an educational standpoint,” Polisena explained. “In Massachusetts, typically the chair of the school committee is the mayor/municipal leader. In New Hampshire, while all members are elected, they have a separate statewide education property tax (SWEPT) which is sent directly to school departments. Local property taxes are used to only fund non-educational municipal services. In Maine, while boards are elected, school districts are legally barred from exceeding spending beyond their budget allotment (this is not the case in Rhode Island). In districts in Connecticut, the board is split between appointed and elected members. In Vermont, local voters decide whether to pass school budgets which all come from a single source revenue stream, the statewide education fund.”
Johnston schools ended 2022 with a nearly $1 million deficit. The district ended 2023 with a “multi-million dollar deficit,” according to Polisena, and he has voiced concerns the district may face another deficit “by the end of the upcoming 2024 fiscal year as well, which would amount to three consecutive deficits.”
“Rhode Island is the only state in New England where almost all school departments are fully independent from municipalities in decision-making yet totally dependent on municipalities for funding,” Polisena wrote Tuesday. “To make matters worse, school departments have the legal authority to exceed their annual budget and the municipalities in Rhode Island are forced to pay for the debt. This means raising property taxes despite none of that new revenue going to municipal services. Either take the school department out of municipal budgets and let them send out their own tax bill, similar to certain fire districts, or keep them on one tax bill but give the members of municipal government a say in operations.”
Polisena questioned the Ocean State’s educational status quo.
“Lastly, can anyone point to metrics, whether educational or financial, that show the current structure is working for our students here in Rhode Island?” The mayor asked. “We always seem to be trying to emulate Massachusetts when it comes to education, in both standards and scores, yet we cannot do so until the foundation of our own educational system in Rhode Island is changed. Investing in children is the greatest investment we can make as a society. It’s time for everyone to get serious about reforming education in Rhode Island put our kids in position to achieve their true potential.”
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