and now the fun starts

Not really, of course.  I’m being sarcastic. 

With the Joint Finance Spectacle over for this year, the school district administration must now get to work eliminating about $1.25 million from its operating budget for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.  I’m not going to write about this JFC meeting, like I did the last.  The East Bay Newspapers wrote an article giving the basic facts, noting that the JFC voted to approve just over half the budget increase the school district had requested.  I know that we’re supposed to feel grateful for this, at least from the Committee’s point of view.  And I do appreciate the increase, though it’s taken me a couple of days to work my way up to ‘appreciation’. 

But it’s a gratitude tinged with resentment, born of the adversarial attitude and downright bad behavior of our most vocal JFC members.  For all their words to the contrary, the JFC certainly positioned itself as the antagonist to supporters of education in Bristol and Warren on Tuesday night.  But we need to move on with the hard work ahead of us, so I’m not going to write about the shockingly unethical attempts by Mary Parella to force a contract provision at a public meeting, when she knows full well that the teachers’ union and the School Committee are currently engaged in a good-faith negotiation.  I’m sure she didn’t mean to undermine the entire process, no.  And I’m not going to write about the powermongering rudeness of David Barboza, refusing to allow certain people to speak during the public comment portion of the evening, and cutting off those he did deem worthy to speak when he felt they had said enough.  Surely someone will eventually take away that man’s toys.  I’m not even going to write about Halsey Herreshoff’s befuddlement as to why education should cost more nowadays than it did twenty years ago, when he was Town Administrator (after all, it’s not like the world has changed much in the past two decades). 

'Underfunded Sunset'

There’s (an awful lot) more I could write about, but I’m not going to this time around, because there are more important things to do.  Our district administrators are already figuring out how to work with the allowance they’ve been given.  If you want to be a part of the conversations about what gets cut, then contact our Superintendent and plan to attend School Committee meetings, especially the Budget Subcommittee meetings and the School Committee Workshop meetings.  There’s a workshop meeting on April 11th and a budget meeting scheduled for April 18th; you can view the School Committee calendar and agendas on their website

and now I’ll gladly get back to the arts!

anticipation

Here’s that sunset I was telling you about, not nearly as vibrant as when I’m watching it happen.  Someday I might try and paint a painting of it, just so I can punch up the colors a bit, especially the reds.  As the sun sets tonight the Joint Finance Committee will reconvene in the auditorium of Kickemuit Middle School to decide whether or not to approve the school district budget request, but first there’ll be time for public comment, starting at 7pm.  Hope to see you there!

Bestill my Heart

Just saw this on the Preserve Bristol blog, and as a big fan of Glee and The Sing-Off, I’m practically tripping over my own feet to get tickets! 

The Brown Jabberwocks, April 9th at 8pm in Bristol

 

On Saturday, April 9th at 8pm the Community Concert Series at St. Michael’s Church on Hope Street in Bristol presents A CAPPELLA EXPLOSION.  Three fabulous groups will perform: The Special Guests from Providence College, The Higher Keys from Brown University, and The Brown Jabberwocks (also from Brown University).  Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors and $10 for students.  Tickets may be purchased at Paper, Packaging and Panache on Hope Street in Bristol, or at the door.  Two local restaurants are offering a dinner & concert package; visit the Preserve Bristol blog for more information.  

This weekend, a once-in-a-lifetime chance in our community - master playwright Edward Albee will be speaking at Roger Williams University this Sunday, April 3rd at 7pm.  This is one of those amazing perks of living in a college town.  Tickets are FREE, but limited.  Click over to our Theatre page to find out more.   

And remember to come to the final JFC meeting at Kickemuit Middle School tomorrow night at 7pm and voice your support for funding our public schools, so our youngest citizens can continue to experience the joy and rigor of singing, and aspire to follow in the footsteps of Edward Albee!!!

JFC drama, part 2

When I sit at my computer to write these posts, I am sitting by a large window that gives me a great view of the sunset through the trees, if I time it right.  Saturday evening as I gaze out this window, I’m seeing my most favorite time of day perform a painting across the sky, changing noticably as the minutes tick by toward night.  At the horizon where the sun set a short while ago the sky is pink and orange and small.  The yellows grow from there, stretching up and out, and then there’s a swath of almost-green before the sky opens up in a palest-blue.  The variety of blues is infinite, and as I raise my head to look higher in the sky, through the leafless branches of the oaks and tupelos silhouetted in the foreground, I watch as the shades of blue deepen into the velvety night sky above.  If I watch long enough I can see the stars appear.   

Bristol and Warren are beautiful places to live, and if you’ve lived here for any length of time I’m willing to bet you have your own memories of gorgeous sunsets.  Now, imagine color was taken from our lives.  Our experience of the world would certainly be diminished.  If all we could perceive was a flat gradation of black, white, and gray, how long would it be in the busyness of our daily lives before we forgot that a sunset is something worth pausing to behold? 

Or, would we never forget the subtle nuances and staggering beauty, but always miss it?

Our school district is facing the possibility of having to cut $3 million from our schools, IF IF IF the Joint Finance Committee refuses to approve their 2011-2012 budget request.  At the JFC meeting last week, Superintendent Melinda Thies presented in great detail once again the ways in which the district has streamlined, searched for efficiencies, and eliminated waste in their operating budget over the past five years.  They will continue to do so where possible, but they’ve reached the point where they’ll have to look at programs, if large-scale cuts are forced on them.  All extracurriculars will be on the chopping block, including sports, and everything in the curriculum not explicitly protected by our accreditation standards or the RIDE Basic Education Plan will be there too – programs like art and music and theater.  The budget request the school district has presented to the Joint Finance Committee is a RESPONSIBLE one – they are only seeking an increase due to the increase in fixed costs over which they have no control (due to things like state-mandated “step” increases for teachers, increases in health insurance rates, and increases due to transportation costs and utilities).  They also have no control over the fact that the State is reducing its aid to Bristol-Warren by over $1 million, because of the Education Funding Formula State Law and the State deficit.  Recognizing that this is a pivotal year for the future of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District, the administration is asking our towns to invest in our childrens’ education by approving the increase in fixed costs and stepping in to make up the loss of State revenue.  This is the right thing to do, and is completely do-able because our two towns have consistently dedicated less than the average percentage of revenue allocated to education by towns and cities in Rhode Island. 

Several members of the JFC would have us believe otherwise, because it is politically easier for a Town Councilor/Administrator/Manager to say “gee, I wish we could help but times are too tough” than it is to stand up for the future of Bristol and Warren and make public education a top priority, and firmly state that it’s time to consider some things that other cities and towns in Rhode Island and around the country are already doing to make it work.  It takes real leaders to do all that, forward-thinking people who are willing to look past the next election cycle.  Do we have any real leaders on the Joint Finance Committee?   

We’ll find out on Tuesday, March 29th at 7pm, when the JFC holds its second (and final) meeting on the matter in the auditorium at Kickemuit Middle School.  The first meeting, held last week at the high school, would have been an entertaining bit of community theater, if the stakes weren’t so high.  The Mt. Hope High School Marching Band was playing outside as townspeople walked toward the auditorium entrance, providing a musical prelude to the evening’s performance.  Inside, the stage was set and several community leaders were recognized in the crowd as people milled about, chatting and finding their seats.  Then the players took their places and the show began.  David Barboza, chairperson of the JFC, started us off with a presentation peppered with misinformation and had me thinking of P.T. Barnum trying to put one over on an unsuspecting mark, like when he announced that the Warren tax rate would have to increase by $17.55 to cover their share of the school budget request!  (Warren members of the JFC quickly corrected him – the Warren tax rate would have to increase by $1.05 to cover their share – but I wondered why Mr. Barboza was presenting something to the public that he hadn’t even bothered to share with his fellow JFC members ahead of time!)

After this introduction, school officials presented the district’s 2011-2012 budget request, and then there was time for public comment and remarks from the members of the Joint Finance Committee.  Every player had their moment in this surreal theatre of town politics.  David Barboza was almost comically infuriating with his index finger raised in the air, always trying for the last word (a fairly common affliction – you might like to start a blog, David).  By the end of the night he seemed to be solidly cast in the role of antagonist, alternating between astonished and angered by the public show of support for our school district.  But we must remember this – we have merely reached the intermission, and I would love to be pleasantly surprised by an unexpected depth of character revealed in Act Two. 

Mary Parella took the lead this year in the tired old song-and-dance number, “Let’s Not Forget the Elderly”.  Bristol and Warren are still multi-generational towns, and it’s insulting to suggest that supporters of our schools are willing to cast aside the needs of our senior members of society.  Denise Arsenault articulated this sentiment when she reminded the committee that we take good care of our elderly, and it’s time to take good care of our children, too.  Throughout the night JFC members asked for concrete suggestions, so I offer this to the members from Bristol:  if you’re really concerned with our elderly taxpayers living on fixed incomes, then replace the “Age-Only” Tax Exemption for Senior Citizens with a more appropriate “Age-Plus-Income-Qualified” Tax Exemption for Senior Citizens.  Then you could increase the amount of the exemption for those elderly taxpayers actually struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income by removing the option from those senior taxpayers who spend their winters at their second homes in Florida and their summers here in Bristol driving their Mercedes to a different restaurant every night for dinner.

Ken Marshall and Diane Mederos seem like the most likely players to emerge as true leaders in Act Two of the JFC drama on March 29th.  They both spoke intelligently and reasonably, if a bit quietly, at last week’s meeting, and they’ve both spoken in support of education in the past.  I’ll be watching next week to see if they can rise to the challenge and match their actions to their speeches, and yes, I am placing a lot of my hope in their hands.  As far as the Warren members of the Joint Finance Committee, I am not sure where to place any hope, as it is my impression that all three of them were struck with a typical knee-jerk reaction to the school budget request, assuming the challenge can’t be met.  But there might be a glimmer in Cathy Tattrie, the only JFC member to state her support for a suggestion voiced by several members of the public, including some of our dedicated school leaders who are also parents - charging for trash pickup.  I agree it’s high time Bristol and Warren look into Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) programs that many other towns and cities in Rhode Island, and around the country, have been doing for a while now.  Done right, this could be a win-win-win scenario: good for our towns, good for our schools, and good for our planet as more people pay closer attention to their recycling efforts.  And it would be one part of an elegant solution to the question of how to fund the school district’s budget request, because an elegant solution is what’s needed, not a simplistic one in which all we do is raise the tax rate.

The audience had their turn to shine as well before the night was through.  A Hugh Cole 2nd-grade teacher pointed out that teachers and parents have been reaching deeper and deeper into their own pockets because the JFC has been approving less money than has been needed year after year – and that’s not the way public school is meant to work.  Several students spoke eloquently of their gratitude for the quality education they’ve received in Bristol-Warren, and their fear that soon their younger siblings and friends will not have the same educational opportunities.  And Superintendent Melinda Thies drew thunderous applause when she answered a JFC member’s question with a firm, “Yes,” echoing public opinion - we expect the towns to make up for the loss in State aid.

But this isn’t theater, it’s real life, and the stakes ARE high.  If you gut the schools, then you gut the community, because families will leave and new families won’t move in.  The members of the Joint Finance Committee are aware of this – the only question is, do any of them have the guts to stand up for the future of Bristol and Warren? 

The Joint Finance Committee reconvenes at 7pm on Tuesday, March 29th in the auditorium at Kickemuit Middle School.  I hope you’ll join me in support of our schools and our youngest citizens!

JFC drama, part 1

fair warning: The Arts Room strives to remain non-political in our support of the arts in our public schools and our community, but I attended the Joint Finance Committee meeting last night so this post may get a bit political…

A few weeks ago The Arts Room published a post that wondered what the impact would be if a particular piece of information was presented visually.  The idea for this post came up after I learned something about the town of Bristol at a special meeting of the School Committee held at the end of January 2011, and it was inspired by the work being presented on the website, Information is Beautiful.  The post is called ‘Beautiful Impact’ and included a graphic representation of the percent of revenue invested in education by town in Rhode Island, created using data published by the State of Rhode Island on the Municipal Finance website, from the municipal budget survey for Fiscal Year 2010.  You can read the original post here.

Last night at the Joint Finance Committee meeting, David Barboza, who is the chairperson of the committee, spoke about how upset he felt by public sentiment that the town of Bristol hasn’t been adequately funding education.  He said he has been hearing things around town and receiving emails to that effect, but I don’t know if he was referring to the ‘Beautiful Impact’ graph in particular.  He presented his own series of slides (that were not very impressive, visually) showing the calendar year and the corresponding percent of the Bristol property tax dollar allocated to education, illustrating that the allotment currently stands at 51%.  And then he wondered aloud how anyone could consider that less than adequate.  (I can, when you review the state data and notice that the average percentage of revenue devoted to education by RI cities and towns is 60%.) 

But then later in the evening during the School District’s presentation of the budget request, Superintendent Melinda Thies included a similar graph, comparing the percentages of local, state, and federal revenue invested in education by town in Rhode Island: 

I noticed right away that when presented this way, the hierarchy of towns does indeed shift, but Bristol and Warren still remain near the bottom, but almost immediately David Barboza interrupted her presentation and launched into a blustery rant about the graph, calling it misleading and false.  Mrs. Thies calmly explained that the graph was created using up-to-the-minute data provided by the State of Rhode Island to our school district office, but Mr. Barboza still dismissed it.  Mary Parella also questioned the validity of the graph, saying she was suspicious that certain towns would be depicted so high up on the list, and Bristol so low, although on what she was basing her suspicions was not clear. 

<sigh>

I guess I’m not surprised that they would try to find fault with the data rather than acknowledge it, but still it was disappointing to see some members of the Joint Finance Committee shouting “nuh-uh!” like little children.  I guess I had hoped they would acknowledge that we have reached a point in time when Bristol will have to contribute more to education, now that we are on the receiving end of a drastic cut in State aid.

David Barboza certainly spoke the most, but once more Joint Finance members starting talking, you could start to see the mixed bag of opinions held across the committee.  I walked away from the meeting with the impression that more than one Joint Finance member understands the dire financial situation the school district will be in if the towns don’t step up to fill the void.  Ken Marshall and Diane Mederos, in particular, commented in a reasonable and intelligent manner during the 3-hour meeting.  I thought it was a shame to see Mary Parella bring up the dubious concern that someone “out there” would try to frame the possibility of raising the tax rate as a battle pitting the elderly against families with young children, because by bringing it up, she becomes the person framing it that way.  Cathy Tattrie seemed to have entirely missed the point of the district’s presentation when she suggested that the school department always looks to cut programs first – in fact the district clearly showed they’ve been paring down everything else as much as they can over the past five years, and now they’ve reached the point where they’ll have to look at cutting programs, if cuts are made necessary.  And Halsey Herreshoff revealed himself to be so far behind the times when he commented that this might be a good opportunity to cut some programs that ‘don’t really matter’ – which makes me wonder if he has any idea what sort of creative skills our children will need in order to lead successful lives in the 21st-century.

But I was so proud of our townspeople, the parents and grandparents and teachers and school leaders and students, for showing up to support our school district - and for correcting the misinformation floated by certain JFC members with the truth, and for stomping out the fear-mongering tactics attempted by some JFC members, and for answering every suggestion that times-are-tough-so-there’s-nothing-we-can-do with valid suggestions and hard facts. 

stay tuned for more in “JFC drama, part 2″!