Election 2012: School candidates ponder if tax increases are needed for East Providence facilities
EAST PROVIDENCE — The East Providence Post and eastbayri.com concludes coverage of the 2012 School Committee campaign with one final question to the those candidates running in contested elections on Nov. 6.
The Post: Would you be willing to urge the City Council/Budget Commission to increase taxes in order to either repair or replace the city’s crumbling school facilities?
ELIZABETH CLUPNY: “No, I am not willing to urge the City Council/Budget Commission to increase taxes in order to either repair or replace the City’s school facilities. The taxpaying citizens of East Providence are already very heavily burdened by taxes (federal, state, local). This burden is made worse by the bad economy, especially for those who have lost jobs, face reduced hours, or (for those in construction related industries) find it hard to get contract work. This is not the time to raise taxes. When times are bad, individuals and families adjust their budgets and lifestyles in order to live within their means. Government must do the same, particularly as the government’s income is derived from the taxpayer. Until the economy improves, and/or other sources of funding become available, the school system will have to find ways to make its existing facilities serve the purpose for which they are designed.
“While I’m on the subject, I will also oppose any effort to extract additional funds from the City through the use of Caruolo Act legal actions (wherein the School Committee would sue the City Council for additional revenues). I believe that such methods not only usurp the City’s appropriating authority’s designated function, but also subverts its efforts to balance the city’s finances. Thus Caruolo actions are contrary to the interests of the citizens of East Providence, whether or not the School Committee has satisfied the legal prerequisites to sustain a successful Caruolo action or not.”
BETTY J. DECRESCENZO: “Over the past year, my observation of the relationship between the School Committee and the City Council has, at times, been adversarial. As everyone knows, the School Department and/or School Committee does not have any means to generate public funds. They must rely on appropriations allocated from the City Council. The East Providence City Council has already informed the Budget Commission that the residents and taxpayers of this city do not want a tax increase.
“Likewise, over the past year, I have observed the process and manner in which the Budget Commission has reduced the deficit. I believe the members of the Budget Commission were very fortunate to have a dozen administrators walk away from this district so they could fill the holes with the turnover money of saved salaries and benefits. I have witnessed the Budget Commission with Michael O’Keefe at the helm make difficult decisions with partial or biased information. I have also heard Mr. O’Keefe make disparaging remarks about the School Committee, Politicians and Parents while he is at the same time lobbying for a new Veteran’s Home in Bristol because in his words, "The existing (Veteran’s) home is environmentally unsound. Maintenance is a nightmare. It’s old and dilapidated." Are we not experiencing the same problems with our school buildings? Perhaps, Mr. O’Keefe can also recommend in his five year plan putting some bond issues on the ballot to improve our infrastructure.
“It doesn’t appear that the Budget Commission can be urged or nudged to do anything it doesn’t want to do. What is even worse is that the Rhode Island General Law 45-9 gives them complete autonomy to make all decisions. Even the City Council is governed by that law. Any request would fall on deaf ears.
“My hope is that after the election, all the governing parties will be more cooperative and able to come together to collaborate on issues and reach solutions which will enhance both the school environment and programs for children. We need to work together to regain some stature in the community and return East Providence and its School Department to a model of excellence.”
ANTHONY FERREIRA: “I am not willing to urge the City Council or Budget commission to increase taxes without the entire School Committee, City Council and the public’s input. We should have public meetings to let them know more information on which schools need to be replaced, repaired and a have line item cost for each school. The old way of spending tax dollars are over.”
STEPHEN FURTADO: “This is a very interesting question. To start with, ALL tax dollars go into the general fund. There is nothing in state law or the city charter that allows property tax increases to go to a specific purpose. Therefore any "promise" that a tax increase would go to repairing or replacing our infrastructure would not have any binding effect on the money once it became part of the general fund.
With that said, let us talk about the school department budget as recently passed by the Budget Commission. This budget cut $4 million dollars from last years allocation! That $4 million dollars could have been used to make needed repairs on our buildings.
“The Budget Commission often talks in terms of statewide averages when discussing school related appropriations. This is especially true when Mr. O’Keefe has spoken about our special education budget. Their stated goal is to reduce our special education population down to 15%, which is a statewide average. The school department has reduced the number from 27% down to 19% which is a great accomplishment.
“With that said the statewide average allocation of funds for school systems is 55% of the total municipal budget. At the new budget allocation of $71,060,251 East Providence is funding our schools at less than 50% of the $153,924,361 citywide budget! And this is nothing new, we have for many years fallen far below the statewide averages of 55-60%!
“If the school department were to receive an allocation at the statewide average there would be an additional $13,598,000 in funds available. That extra money could go a long way in repairing our infrastructure. And that would be without a tax increase.
“Now due to the cities’ under funding of their pension system for police and fire (almost all school pensions are fully funded through the state system), The Budget Commission is being forced to play catch up! They need to allocate $6 million just to pension benefits (opeb) in addition to the increased (arc) pension contributions. That is one reason that the school system cannot expect to receive funding at the statewide average levels. But if we had been funded at just the average level for these past years, the deficit and many of the building repair issues may never have occurred.
“Our best course of action, at least for the immediate future is working with the Budget Commission to improve our bond rating and put together another referendum for building repairs as soon as financially feasible. Hopefully after this crisis has passed, our city will be able to fully fund our sch
ool system at least at the statewide average and we can adequately maintain our buildings. Until that time, increasing taxes is not a good answer.”
JOEL MONTEIRO: ‘There is no question that our school facilities are in need of much attention. For too many years we have not managed city and school budgets responsibly, allowing our school buildings and fields to deteriorate. I believe, as I stated in recent communications, that the condition of the environment has a direct impact on the quality of learning in our schools.
“As a member of the School Committee, it will not be my decision to increase taxes. However, it will be my job to urge the City Council/Budget Commission to prioritize our schools, and find the funds to address this need. The budget being put together is a working document, and can be improved at any time. We must continuously be looking for ways to be more efficient, and get more return on our dollars. The School Committee, and all of us as East Providence residents, must hold the City Council/Budget Commission accountable for how they spend our tax dollars for our schools. Our schools, and their facilities, need to become a priority to the city, not an obligation.
Editor's Note: At-Large candidate Ronald Warr did not submit a response in time for the Oct. 25 print edition of The Post.
“Still, before I would suggest increasing the tax burden on our residents, we must exhaust all other efforts. We must look for grants and other means. Our State Officials need to be more active in providing guidance, helping us find creative ways to fund our much needed projects. The elected officials of East Providence, from School Committee, City Council, to State Offices, need to work together to improve our school system. The quality of life in East Providence begins with the quality of our schools.
“I am willing to do anything that is fair for our students, families, and tax payers. I look foward to working with numerous people to formulate ideas and discuss options to improve our facilities. Whatever is done, it needs to be transparent to the residents of the city, and handled responsibly by those of us elected to represent them.”