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Thursday, August 30, 2012

I woke up today to an automated phone call from the school superintendent telling me that the first day of school in North Kingstown has been delayed by a strike.

The Educational Support Personnel (ESP) union has walked out over the School Committee’s action to outsource the jobs of all 26 janitors, and so my daughter is home today instead.

As is usual, there is a welter of claims and counter-claims. The ESP union offered some pretty substantial concessions this spring. They say they met the dollar figure the School Committee had insisted was necessary.

The Committee responded that they were close, but the superintendent had already budgeted some of the savings the union was offering so they needed more. An arbitrator was called in and that report offered a way to save $1.3 million over two years, but again that was measured over the previous year, not over the proposed budget, which already included some of those savings, so it wasn’t enough.
In response, the School Committee voted 5-2 to outsource the 26 custodian jobs. They did insist that the new contractor hire back as many of the custodians as possible, and I gather that 21 of them took the new deal: their old jobs at about 70% of salary, minus the health insurance and pension. In other words, around a 40-45% pay cut, give or take. Would you take that?
I talked to my daughter about this, and she told me about the custodian at the middle school who had encouraged her with a model car she and some classmates built for a Science Olympiad competition in seventh grade (their team won the state event, and went to the national event in Wisconsin that year), and about the elementary school custodian who talked and joked with the children in the cafeteria, but also knew them all, even the first graders. Those are the kind of people you get when the jobs are good jobs.
But I guess that kind of thing is to be part of the past now. Instead of jobs that can support a family, we’ll have jobs that people move through. We’ll have custodial staff stretched thinner, and we’ll have an outsourcing company that is making good money off the deal, that indispensable part of what some people call progress.
Will the district save money?  Maybe this year. But the teacher contract comes up in the fall. What do you suppose will be their level of enthusiasm when the School Committee requests concessions to get through this fiscal storm?
Oh yes, that storm. In all the ire directed at the School Committe in this dispute, let’s not forget that it was the actions of the Town Council that precipitated this crisis. The School Committee told them last winter that they weren’t going to be able to meet the property-tax caps imposed by the state without severe pain. 
In response, the Town Council cut the school budget even further than the property tax cap demands. North Kingstown has a notoriously dysfunctional School Committee, but it was Council President Elizabeth Dolan, and members Michael Bestwick, Charlie Stamm, Carol Hueston, and Charles Brennan who have effectively put the screws to the custodians.
Council members I’ve spoken to seem proud that they’re willing to hold the line on taxes, but at what cost?  North Kingstown’s taxes are already lower than average in the state, according to the tax effort formula defined in state law (75.5% of the average).
In a conversation one summer evening this past July, one council member told me with certainty about the waste that could be cut out of the school budget. As I usually notice when people decry government waste to me, the member could supply no specific suggestion to cut beyond the job of an assistant to the superintendent, a cost of less than one fifteenth the amount they insisted be cut.
The custodian contract wasn’t the only change this year. Just looking at the high school (where my family’s attention is focused, for better or worse), the foreign language offerings have been slashed, school supplies cut way back, and graduation requirements lowered, all for budget reasons.
One of the curiosities of government around here that we take for granted is that we elect School Committee members, and don’t give them the independence to make their own decisions. I’m doing policy consulting work in other states lately, and I’ve noticed that in lots of states — maybe the majority outside New England — school departments are a parallel government, operated independently of the city or county where they are located, often with separate tax bills.
School Committee members there are directly responsible to voters for the decisions they make. Around here, by contrast, the School Committee is subservient to the City or Town Council. The North Kingstown Council has spoken, its members are largely responsible for the budget crisis in the school department, but they take no heat for that. Union press releases inveigh against the School Committee, but ignore the Town Council. This, it seems to me, is the opposite of taking responsibility.
So, Liz Dolan: Your Council cut the school budget. You overruled the opinions of the people supposedly responsible for that budget. Where exactly is the waste? 
Michael Bestwick: Precisely what would you cut?
Charles Brennan: Where else do we find savings?  Please be specific.
Carol Hueston: What other jobs are to be outsourced? 
Charlie Stamm: How do we settle this dispute?  It is the straightforward consequence of your decisions: how will you defend those choices?  Or will you just hope no one notices that you were behind the hard choices made by someone else?
Tom Sgouros is a freelance engineer, policy analyst, and writer. Reach him at Buy his book, "Ten Things You Don't Know About Rhode Island" at