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!