Ratios, Lies and Stolen Dreams

 “Inclusive, good-quality education is a foundation for dynamic and equitable societies.” Desmond Tutu

You will find the following statement twice in the FY 2020-21 South Kingstown School District Budget: “The district is proud of its ability to use our financial resources wisely, purposefully, and responsibly to maintain and enhance a high-quality education for all students because it is our belief that our children are our most important asset in the community.” Hogwash!

Lost Dreams

Since 2002 the taxpayers of South Kingstown have paid between $63 and $200 million dollars for a bloated school district workforce we never needed and which hasn’t proportionally improved outcomes for a generation’s worth of students.

If the proposed $64.5M FY2020-21 South Kingstown School District Budget as currently structured is passed and accepted by the Town Council on Thursday night the cost per student this September will exceed $23,000 for the first time. Some might argue that $23k per student shows how important education is in South Kingstown, but in our case all it really means is we spend a lot of money on people whose job it is to educate children. Unfortunately, our 2017 PARCC and 2018 + 2019 RICAS and PSAT-10 results are proof that the return on our investment has been at best, meager.

The union-backed majority which controls the South Kingstown School Committee is using the coronavirus pandemic as cover while they lie to the public in their scheme to con the taxpayers once again. Since their election in 2018 this group, led by vice-chair Sarah Markey, a full-time union organizer for the National Education Association of RI (NEARI), has prioritized continuing a now two-decade stratagem by NEARI of maintaining an insupportably low students-to-full-time-employee (FTE) ratio above all else. Above accountability for the job performance of teachers, above ensuring our school buildings meet today’s standards, and worst of all above protecting the right of every student to an equitable education. In the process they’ve compromised the integrity of administrators by having them peddle misleading information to the public.

At the Dec 10, 2019 school committee meeting District Superintendent Linda Savastano presented an “Accountability Report” to the public, explaining the Star Ratings each school received from the results of the 2019 RICAS assessment testing. Something I saw in a newspaper article about that meeting later in the week didn’t sit right with me. The article quoted the superintendent as suggesting the 2019 RICAS scores of students with disabilities and Indigenous American students were the reason our schools didn’t get higher star ratings. For SKHS and West Kingston Elementary that was true because having 2 low-performing subgroups stopped SKHS from receiving a 4-star rating, and absenteeism and suspensions were contributing factors for West Kingston’s 3-star score, but she also seemed to intimate their low scores was the reason four other schools ended up with 3-star ratings. Did our superintendent just throw those students under a school bus?

Having had the opportunity to talk with Linda Savastano on a number of occasions I firmly believe she would never demean anyone, especially students. No, I believe she was instructed to spin the truth by NEARI-SK to hide the real reason for our school’s Star Ratings – ineffective teaching. I feel there are teachers in this district, many of whom are Step 10 certified, who don’t know how to teach today’s students with today’s technology, or who are angry because their Article 7 retirement dates got pushed out to the right, or who just can’t teach but the system protects them nonetheless. It didn’t make sense that scores of a small number of students would have that much effect on the ELA and Math scores of an entire school, so I contacted Scott Gausland, the Director of the Office of Data and Technology at RIDE. In his reply he said, “…the scores that make up the star chart are always calculated using the entire school population, with the exception of the far-right column. Subgroup scores only count for targeted (TSI-ATSI) or comprehensive (CSI) support identification, and a school cannot be a 5-star school if one or more subgroups are identified as needing support.”

What this means is our district’s mediocre school ratings in 2018 and 2019 weren’t the fault of our special education or minority students at all in fact, with better ELA and Math results SK could have placed behind only Barrington in 2018 with four 5-star schools, one 4-star school, and two 3-star schools, and third just behind East Greenwich in 2019 with two 5-star, four 4-star, and one 3-star school.

Certified Staffing Considerations on pg. 24 of this budget is exhibit “A” in disinformation. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, is classic NEARI boilerplate. A veritable litany of excuses why this school district has so many teachers on the payroll. Over to the right is a box where eight school districts are listed along with their certified staff totals for the 2018-19 school year. It says SK’s number is right on. Problem is, when you drill down, you’ll see that SK has the lowest students per Certified FTE ratio (big $$ = not good) and SK’s 2018 and 2019 School Star Ratings ranks 7th out of those 8 districts. The only district behind us was Central Falls, and when compared to the 31 K-12 districts in RI the SKSD is in the bottom half for 2019.

When Town Council president Abel Collins decided to put himself on the TC-SC Budget Subcommittee back in December he said they should look to see if the number of full-time-employees (FTE) had declined at the same rate as the decline in enrollment. It hasn’t. In 2002 as Broad Rock Middle School came on line there were 4,344 students and 620.6 full-time-employees (FTE), a ratio of 7.0 students per FTE. The ratio every year since then has been artificially kept between 6.90 and 6.12. If the ratio had remained at 7.0:1 there would be 411 FTEs on the payroll this year not 454, and 400 next year not the 444.6 shown in the budget, a savings to the taxpayers of $5M each year.

The average enrollment of the 23 school districts in RI and MA with budgets between $60-69M is 4,035 – NESDEC forecasts SK’s will be 2,801 come September. It means we spend the same amount of money and educate 1,200 fewer students! Since the school funding formula was changed in 2012 the SKSD has received $72.3M in education aid from the State, an average of $2,287 per student per year. That’s 60% more per student than Barrington’s $1,423 per student, and 120% more per student than East Greenwich’s $1,023 got over these last ten years. We should be thanking the people who developed the formula, not berating them.

In January I presented a plan to the Town Council and the School Committee to increase our student-to-employee ratio from our current 6.3:1 to 7.5:1 over 10 years, mainly thru retirements. Declining costs associated with employee compensation would keep this district’s total gross expenses from increasing over this time, freeing up resources to build an entirely new high school and to begin fixing our other schools now, not 10 years from now. I asked that it be vetted by our finance department and Peregrine, the project manager for the school renovation project. I never heard back from anyone. Since I’d already given them all of my calculations, I inquired about having the new SMART committee vet the plan. They told me to submit a formal request in writing.

This project wouldn’t break ground until 2022. Interest rates are going to be at historic lows for the foreseeable future as our economy comes back to life, making borrowing for general obligation bonds cheaper. As hard as it is right now to think about these things, we shouldn’t use that a reason not to.

Finally, the FY 2019-20 budget, like the FY 2020-21 budget is awash in money surplus to requirements of our union contracts and hidden in plain sight inside the salary and benefits revenue lines – roughly $800,000 this year and $1,400,000 next year. Add to that the operational savings accruing from the switch to online instruction on Mar 16th, for example, from $650K in transportation savings thru May 1st, and as much as $1.5M if our buildings remain closed until school ends on Jun 18th, and you end up with $3.3 to 5 million dollars that needs to be removed before the gavel drops twice tomorrow night. I’ve asked the school committee to do that, and the town council has been put on notice that I won’t countenance they’re not abiding by their fiduciary responsibility like they did last year. This level of malfeasance requires compliance and it needs to stop. If our elected representatives refuse to do so, a petition to reduce the amount transferred to the school district is sure to follow, and with that a ton more reasons for that reduction will come out. The ball is now in the school committee’s court.

Dorald Beasley – Kingston

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