“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” Diogenes
The five individuals elected to the South Kingstown Town Council are considered members “at-large,” or representing all voters – in theory, but since 2000, council majorities associated or aligned with the National Education Association of RI have given preference to the 400-500 members of that association’s two locals, NEASK and SKESP, over our students and our community.
The Democratic Party has been the majority party in RI since 1941, so the advantages of “endorsed” Democrats are formidable, support of public employee unions, exclusive use of extensive phone trees, email and mailing lists, and fundraising. When people queue up for one of the five coveted Democratic Party endorsements, it’s not first-come, first-served. No, these sought-after spots go to the connected and the malleable. Sometimes people who ran as unbranded Independents in a prior election, as Abel Collins did in 2014 and Stephanie Canter in 2018, “shape-shift” two years later to garner one of the coveted Endorsed Candidate asterisks * that you’ll see to the right of their names on the ballot.
Hence, it takes someone unafraid of taking on the “machine” to beat this Goliath, someone like Deborah Bergner, who is running as an unendorsed Democrat. Deb ran for a council seat two years ago, finishing 7th, so she knows what she’s up against. She also knows that running is the only way to end this monopoly and bring honesty, empathy, and integrity back into the council chamber. Ms. Bergner isn’t using the council to get her ticket stamped, on the way to Smith Hill, as others have in the past. She’s laser-focused on the problems that the residents of this town face today, pandemic stressed families, struggling businesses, unemployment, and food and housing insecurity.
Current council president, Abel Collins, and counselors Rory McEntee and Deborah Kelso didn’t give those hardships a second thought back in April, when they approved the school district’s FY 2020-21 property tax transfer request of $56 million, disregarding RI General Law § 16-7-23 which could have lowered our 2020 property tax rate. Counselor Joe Viele, who is stepping down this year, was first elected in 2014 along with Mr. Collins. He told me recently this was the first year he had gotten a second NO vote on any motion to increase the property tax transfer to the school district.
In his third term, Mr. Collins has shown no apprehension about collecting his yearly stipend while raising other people’s taxes. Might that be because, as the town’s online property tax database shows, his total tax bill during his first 5+ years on the council was less than ninety dollars? That in and of itself is not the worry; it’s the seeming lack of compassion for those less fortunate.
Rhode Island General Law § 16-7-23 governs a community’s requirement to adequately fund their public schools. You may have heard the terms “level funding” or “maintenance of effort” (MOE) before. If our district’s current 2020-21 student registration number is correct, South Kingstown will have 2,723 students in our schools next week, our 19th consecutive yearly decline. In 1998 § 16-7-23 was amended for districts like SK by adding, a community which has a decrease in enrollment may compute maintenance of effort on a per pupil rather than on an aggregate basis when determining its local contribution.
So, how many times have our town councils used that change in the law to help control our cost per student? Stumped? Well, here’s a hint, it’s less than the number 1. That’s right, zero – as in never, including the final sixteen annual budget cycles of the Steve Alfred – Alan Lord – Michael Ursillo management/counsel team. When Mr. Collins decided to put himself on the Town Council – School Committee Budget Subcommittee back in December he said they should look to see if the number of full-time-employees (FTE) has declined at the same rate as the decline in enrollment. As you’ll see in the graph below, 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 (orange line) has been artificially kept between 6.90 and 6.12. If § 16-7-23 had been applied beginning in 2002, the ratio would have stayed at 7.0:1 (gray line) and there would be 400 FTEs on the payroll next week not the 444.6 shown in the FY 2020-21 budget, saving the taxpayers from $63 to $165 million, $5+ million of that just this year. Abel Collins, Rory McEntee and Deborah Kelso could have told the school committee to go back and trim your budget, but they caved just as councils have done now for nearly two decades, favoring NEASK and SKESP over the students they serve and the taxpayers who foot the bill.
South Kingstown desperately needs new leadership. You can help make that happen by voting for Deb Bergner in the Democratic primary, by mail-in ballot or at the polls on Tuesday, September 8th. Deb needs to finish in the Top-5 to get on the ballot in November’s General Election. Unendorsed Democratic candidates like Ms. Bergner, and Michelle Brousseau and Cadence Hansen, who are seeking seats on the S.K. School Committee, need the support of Unaffiliated (Independent) voters like myself to get there. We cannot sit this one out. They’re counting on us.
Dorald W. Beasley – Kingston
Independent Candidate for the Town Council
Please Note: Melissa Boyd contacted me this morning (9/2/20) to let me know that she had received messages from people telling her they didn’t like the tone of this article and were considering not voting for her in the primary because of my support for unendorsed Democratic candidates. In response I said, “Candidates for public office in South Kingstown have been harassed and intimidated for years by people who disagree with their positions. And it does not end if you’re elected – it gets worse.” I have honored her request and removed her name from this post. I wish Melissa all the best on Tuesday. db
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