PORTSMOUTH — More state funding for schools, supporting an alternative LNG supply to Aquidneck Island, and improved internet service were among the top priorities local legislators need to …
PORTSMOUTH — More state funding for schools, supporting an alternative LNG supply to Aquidneck Island, and improved internet service were among the top priorities local legislators need to work on, according to members of the Town Council and School Committee.
The two panels met in a joint session Monday to present their 2023 wish list to three local lawmakers, all from Portsmouth: Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72), Rep. Michelle McGaw (D-Dist. 71), and Sen. Linda Ujifusa (D-Dist. 11). (Note: McGaw is the wife of Jim McGaw, editor of The Portsmouth Times.)
“Our first priority will always be funding the school system itself,” said Juan Payero, vice chair of the school board. Compared to many other districts, he said Portsmouth “gets shortchanged in the (school) funding formula.”
According to Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, under Gov. Daniel McKee’s budget the district is standing to lose about $257,000 in state aid in the 2023 fiscal year.
On top of that, the cost of educating students with disabilities continues to increase, according to the school board. The 2023-24 cost of out-of-district tuition for Portsmouth is estimated to be over $1 million, and the district typically gets about $100,000 from the high-cost special education categorical fund to help offset those costs. The board asked legislators to support an increase in the high-cost special education categorical fund included in the funding formula, similar to what’s done in Massachusetts.
School board member Karen McDaid said special ed costs can change abruptly, which makes budgeting that much more difficult. “It’s the law; it’s not something we can cut back on,” she said.
School officials said a more equitable funding formula would also help Portsmouth pay for ever-increasing statewide transportation costs, which are expected to be more than $600,000 next year. According to the school board, legislation designed to provide fiscal support for transportation outside the district has failed year after year, and members asked legislators to study the issue to make it more affordable.
Council member Charles Levesque, a former stat legislator, said school officials may want to temper their expectations regarding major changes to the funding formula.
“Portsmouth has a reputation of being wealthy and well-run,” Levesque said, adding he couldn’t convince other legislators of the local district’s needs when he was in the General Assembly. “Portsmouth deserves its fair share, but our fair share may be a little less than you think.”
School board member Fred Faerber III said Barrington is considered a wealthy district yet it’s receiving $1.9 million more in state aid next year.
Council member Keith Hamilton pointed to Central Falls being funded at “100 percent” by the state. “Central Falls does not invest in our children; I do, Mr. Gleason does,” he said, referring to council member David Gleason sitting next to him. Central Falls and some other municipalities have little incentive to properly fund their schools if the state is already picking up the tab, he said.
“You’re totally wrong,” countered Levesque, saying Central Falls and other districts have real challenges.
Legislators from municipalities who feel they’re being shortchanged on the funding formula should work together to fix the funding formula, Hamilton said.
While Sen. Ujifusa agreed that forming a coalition could help, it’s a hard “ask” since she’s up against 37 other senators who want to focus on their own communities rather than Portsmouth.
She said making the funding formula more transparent is a big focus for legislators this year, however. “It is so opaque, it’s unbelievable," Ujifusa said, noting it’s difficult to know exactly how each community receives the aid that it does. “I think it was done on purpose to make people unable to advocate for what they want.”
The Town Council included support for an alternative LNG supply to the island as one if its legislative priorities for 2023.
The 2019 gas outage, which crippled many restaurants and left families without heat for two weeks, showed how fragile the LNG supply to Aquidneck Island, some council members said, and Rhode Island Energy’s (formerly National Grid) peak shaving facility on Old Mill Lane is located in a residential area and needs to be removed or relocated as soon as possible.
Hamilton said the solution is the installation of a secondary pipeline, either from Bristol or Tiverton, to provide a looped system that provides a consistent supply.
Levesque cautioned that if a tremendous capital investment was made on a second gas line, more people would want to tap into it. “Are we moving to green energy or are we not?” he asked.
Rep. Cortvriend agreed, saying the federal Act on Climate requires the state to focus more on green energy. Besides, she said, Rhode Island Energy has already taken a second gas line off the table. Instead, it’s going to replace the current six-inch gas line with a 12-inch line, she said.
Making the line bigger does not solve the problem of peak shaving, Hamilton countered. “We need a consistent flow,” he said. “The problem is that the green energy solutions will not be coming fast enough to provide a consistent and reliable source of energy.”
Council member J. Mark Ryan said if a second line was installed, “there should be a simultaneous moratorium on new (gas) tie-ins for large, commercial facilities.”
Both the council and the school board included improved high-speed internet for Aquidneck Island on their lists of legislative priorities.
“The reliability of the Cox Broadband service was suspect at best; before the pandemic and has only gotten worse,” stated the council in its backup material. “Aquidneck Island is Rhode Island’s main hospitality and defense revenue center for the state. We need better more reliable internet and Cox has not been able to provide a solution.”
Added the school board: “Many families in the Portsmouth school community cannot reliably access high-quality broadband at a reasonable rate, something that has become increasingly important to distance learning and other aspects of education.”
Rep. McGaw noted that the Rhode Island legislature established a Broadband Advisory Council last year with the intention of developing a strategic plan to address broadband issues across the state. That plan should be released this spring.
Through Commerce RI, the advisory council is trying to get feedback from everyone about their internet needs. She urged residents and businesses to help the council evaluate those needs by taking a “speed test” here.