Rich Schools, Poor Schools…

When faced with difficult circumstances, it is often easiest to do nothing.  Ignore the factors that are pressuring a decision and just hope for the best.  In deferring a difficult choice about its schools, South Kingstown is dividing along class lines in ways that will not improve if they are ignored.

Facing nearly two decades of declining enrollment, some difficult decisions were made back in early 2018.  The decisions began to address growing inequity in the schools amongst the haves and have-nots.  The idea then was to use the glut of underutilized facilities to finance the forward looking needs of the buildings while setting South Kingstown on a more fiscally sensible path.  These were contentious decisions.

By the end of 2018, the school district changed its mind.  The new plan would do nearly nothing for 5 years from 2018 to 2023, especially in dealing with the town’s growing schism.  Much has been discussed about the fiscal aspects of the evolving facility plan.  The $90 million project that seems to grow each month is currently expected to leave little to address ongoing maintenance needs.  It does not address the fiscal trajectory South Kingstown is on, annually moving in the opposite direction as the district’s enrollment.  But during the do nothing hiatus while waiting to start the project, this new direction fails to address the inequities that have progressed in our elementary schools.

The last 2 years have seen an extraordinary change in our district.  Staff in both leadership and classroom positions departed in unprecedented ways.  Many have debated the impact of this, but few would deny the pockets of chaos that have resulted.   The most common response to those concerns involves omelets and a few broken eggs.  But these eggs are South Kingstown students, and for some we are talking about lost years at some pretty critical points in their development.

Can the inequity be calculated?  The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) attempts this.  In determining a community’s state funding aid, it relies heavily on the Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) demographics in town.  And in regulating what a district spends each new year, RI General Laws stipulate that a community use per pupil spending as a basis to determine a minimum maintenance of effort.  Finally, based on a new presentation format this year, the School Committee has provided district wide spending details that can be applied per pupil, while spiking out building level spending in greater detail.

Direct spending at WES is reported to be $6,000/student more than at PDES

A striking disparity emerges when comparing where South Kingstown spends the most per pupil (Wakefield Elementary), to the school where it spends the least (Peace Dale Elementary).  Peace Dale’s concentration of students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch is almost double that of Wakefield, yet on a direct per pupil basis, South Kingstown spends almost 40% more per student at Wakefield.

In fact, today Peace Dale alone has over 50% of the elementary level FRL students.  Just five years ago, that school educated roughly 1/3 of the elementary FRL population, so the changes happen fairly quickly.  But they also happen somewhat predictably.

One manifestation of this inequity can be heard in water cooler conversations that Wakefield has one adult for every four students at the school.  With 37 adults on its directory, and just 142 students there, the math might work.  Some of the staff is certainly not there every day, but using Peace Dale’s directory similarly, the 71 adults listed seems small compared to their enrollment of 429, more than triple that of Wakefield.  The optics of that ratio, especially on top of the clear spending disparities, are not good.

In an operational sense, this made Peace Dale the highest priority school for several years.  With an eye toward a facility reconfiguration on the horizon, the district adopted a meet them where they are approach to bridge that span. Actions taken before 2018 made Peace Dale the district’s highest performing school.  In that climate, the link between performance and per pupil spending is almost shattered.  But with the disruption of the last two years, the environment for students may be changing.  As noted, RIDE, and organizations like the ACLU begin to take notice.  Absent direct intervention, South Kingstown elementary school districts will continue to become more segregated by rich and poor. 

During a work session in November, the School Committee approved a plan that defers any redistricting of our elementary schools until the School Year 2024.  The smaller schools are becoming more like boutique schools, while we defer the interventions that enabled Peace Dale to once earn blue ribbon status.  South Kingstown School Committee has looked at one set of difficult decisions, redistricting and consolidation, and chose the easier path, doing nothing for roughly 5 years.  Meanwhile, the new facility priorities that emphasize new and intriguing space, over operational and equitable priorities, is moving forward at an expedited pace.

Many of the decision makers ran campaigns of advocacy for the “marginalized” of our community.  The results of recent actions, and deferral of other decisions, are having the exact opposite outcomes they promised.  South Kingstown is increasingly becoming a town segregated by class.  Rather than face this reality squarely, doing nothing to address the tough decisions appears to simply be kicking the can down the road.

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