Legislators hear wish list from Portsmouth council, school board

Road safety, state aid, field trip funding top legislative priorities

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/13/19

PORTSMOUTH — More state aid for schools, making East Main Road safer and amending a state law to allow for parents to help pay for school field trips were among the items on a 2020 legislative …

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Legislators hear wish list from Portsmouth council, school board

Road safety, state aid, field trip funding top legislative priorities

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — More state aid for schools, making East Main Road safer and amending a state law to allow for parents to help pay for school field trips were among the items on a 2020 legislative wish list the Town Council and the School Committee submitted to three state lawmakers Tuesday night.

The annual joint session was attended by two legislators from Portsmouth — Sen. James Seveney (D-District 11— Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton) and Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-District 72 — Portsmouth, Middletown) — along with Rep. Susan Donovan of Bristol (D-District 69 —Portsmouth, Bristol).

Road safety

Although the Town Council and School Committee each produced separate lists of legislative priorities — five for the council, four for the school board — members saw eye to eye on a few key issues. Chief among them? Road safety.

In September, the council passed a resolution seeking multiple actions to improve state road safety and implement Green and Complete Streets requirements. Subsequently, the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) agreed to complete a safety audit of East Main Road — from Turnpike Avenue to the Middletown line — by either the end of December or early January.

Officials urged lawmakers to pressure state transportation officials to not delay road safety work and to fund all necessary projects, including a pilot road diet on East Main Road that was approved by the R.I. State Traffic Commission in September 2019 but now appears scheduled for 2022 in the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). In addition, a recent revision to the STIP recently shifted funding from planned bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including those in Portsmouth, to “other RIDOT projects,” the council noted.

Speaking in favor of the road diet for East Main, School Committee Chairwoman Emily Copeland noted that many school buses traverse that dangerous route, and those vehicles are currently wider than a single lane on the road.

The council also expressed concerns over a Transit Master Plan the R.I.  Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is currently creating to shape mass transit across the state for the next 20 years. Officials asked lawmakers to help the town advocate for beneficial mass transit work, such as more frequent service or building a hub, to be included in the TMA.

Council member Keith Hamilton said he’d like to see a bus stop at Anthony House on Middle Road. “To ask our residents to walk across East Main Road to catch the bus is an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

Added council member Daniela Abbott, “One of our major issues here in Portsmouth is the lack of sidewalks and lack of bus shelters.”

School funding formula

In what’s become an annual rite, both panels pleaded with legislators to do something — anything — about the state education aid funding formula, which they say places on unfair burden on taxpayers in towns like Portsmouth. 

The funding formula was implemented in 2012 and school districts still have one more year of additional cuts. Portsmouth has lost about 50 percent of its state aid over the past 10 years due to the current formula, according to school officials. 

“For years we keep losing our share of state aid. Anything that can be done … to release some burden on our taxpayers would really be beneficial to all," Council President Kevin Aguiar said.

Mr. Hamilton noted that the town lost $2 million in overall state aid this year. “If we were to get that back, we wouldn’t have a tax increase next year.”

Legislators said it would be an uphill battle to change the funding formula at this time. “That is going to take a lot of the oxygen out of the building … because it’s such a big issue and it’s so contentious,” said Sen. Seveney, while acknowledging that municipalities are “really taking it on the chin.”

Legislators said any bills to change the funding formula never make its way out of committee. “The House is not looking at the funding formula,” Rep. Cortvriend said. She vowed to keeping supporting such bills, “but they have to come to the floor for us to really do anything.”

At the very least, school officials said any future changes to the formula “should only result in increases to every district’s aid, or at a minimum, hold the districts harmless from further loss.” 

Sen. Seveney said he doubts lawmakers will tweak the formula, which is driven by a number of factors such as wealth, a municipality’s tax rate, the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or qualify for English-as-a-second-language programs.

“The state pays 14 percent in Portsmouth; taxpayers pay the rest,” he said.

The district also encouraged lawmakers to support an increase in the high cost special education categorical fund included in the funding formula aid.

Field trips

School board members urged lawmakers to change the state law to allow schools to once again ask parents to help fund school-sponsored field trips.

Shortly before he left his job in April, R.I. Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner issued an opinion that confirmed a state law prohibiting public schools from asking students’ families to pay for any school-related activities, including field trips. The commissioner’s ruling, which was applauded by the ACLU of Rhode Island and Rhode Island Legal Services, was intended to make things more equitable for lower-income families. 

The ruling, which was not overturned by the new commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, sent local school districts reeling just a couple of months before the school year ended. Many school officials called the ruling shortsighted and said it would put future plans for band trips and other excursions in jeopardy. 

Tuesday night, Ms. Copeland said the law has the committee concerned for many reasons. “We’re worried that it might create more flight to the private school systems, and we’d really hate to have kids have less connection to the school at a time when we want them to have a lot of socio-emotional connections,” she said.

She added that if a student’s family can’t afford to contribute money toward a field trip, a boosters club or PTO always raises money so that child can attend along with his or her peers.

The law states: “No public school official or public school employee shall, for any purpose, solicit or exact from any pupil in any public school any contribution or gift of money or any article of value or any pledge to contribute and money or article of value.” 

The district wants to amend the law be adding the following sentence: “This prohibition does not apply to school sponsored field trips in which parents can be asked for funding as long as the District provides funding to any student whose family cannot afford the cost of the trip.”

Rep. Cortvriend said he intends to submit such a bill, and guessed that other legislators will do the same. 

When Rep. Donovan asked how schools would determine financial need, Ms. Copeland said a family would be eligible if their child qualified for a free or reduced-priced lunch. However, she didn’t want to limit that as a qualifying factor, noting that principals and teachers are usually aware of other reasons families may not be able to pony up for a field trip.

Other issues 

Among the other legislative priorities that were presented to lawmakers Tuesday night:

• Council: Support a 2020 Green Economy Bond, similar to one passed in 2018, to promote environmental protection and sustainable economic growth; support legislation recommended by the Rhode Island secretary of state and R.I. Board of Elections to improve voter rights and security; protect Medicaid and single-payer, improved “Medicare for all” health insurance.

• School board: Support all initiatives to prevent drug abuse in the community, including Sen. Seveney’s recommendation to impose a substance abuse fine for those who drive under the influence or fail to submit to a breathalyzer test. Under his proposal, the fines would be used to support substance abuse and student assistance programs for middle and high school students.

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