Are Portsmouth schools being shortchanged on aid?

District ranks near the bottom in per-pupil state educational funding

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/9/23

PORTSMOUTH — For more than a decade, school and town officials have lamented how the Portsmouth school district is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to its share of annual …

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Are Portsmouth schools being shortchanged on aid?

District ranks near the bottom in per-pupil state educational funding


PORTSMOUTH — For more than a decade, school and town officials have lamented how the Portsmouth school district is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to its share of annual state educational aid. This year is no different, as the local district is slated to lose another $275,000 or so in state school aid under Gov. Daniel McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget.

But here’s another troubling stat to chew on: Of all the public school districts in Rhode Island, Portsmouth is second to last when it comes to state educational aid per pupil. 

The district is slated to receive $3,497,214 in total state educational aid next year under the governor’s spending plan. With an enrollment of 2,183 students, that breaks down to $1,602 of state aid per pupil. Only New Shoreham (Block Island), which is somewhat of an outlier since it enrolls only 131 students, receives less than Portsmouth per pupil ($1,220).

Meanwhile, Barrington — a community to which Portsmouth often compares itself — would receive $10,884,701 under the governor’s budget. While Barrington’s enrollment is significantly higher than Portsmouth’s (3,405), the district would still receive a good deal more state aid per pupil — $3,197. 

Other communities often considered comparable to Portsmouth are also faring better in per-pupil state aid. East Greenwich is due to receive more than $1 million, which breaks down to $2,303 per student. In North Kingstown, the per-pupil figure is more than $3,000 and in South Kingstown, $2,274.

At the same time, all of those districts are due to receive overall increases in state aid, while Portsmouth is losing $275,031 under the governor’s budget. (That figure comes from a table listed on the R.I. Education Department website. School officials, however, say the district is actually losing about $257,000 when considering the aid reduction’s true impact on the appropriation they will ask of the Town Council.)

Barrington is slated to receive about $2 million more in educational aid next year. East Greenwich is due to get nearly $900,000 more, and South Kingstown, about $565,000. North Kingstown’s proposed increase is a more modest $9,543.

So what to make of these apparent inequities? It just goes to show how murky our understanding of the funding formula is, since even some state legislators acknowledge they don’t fully grasp how it works.

Enrollment just one factor

While a school’s enrollment is one factor, it’s not the only one in the state funding formula. There are two other major determinants, according to Chris DiIuro, director of finance and administration for the School Department.

One is the “poverty factor,” which used to be based on the number of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches, but got skewed with the COVID-19 pandemic when free lunches were offered free to all, DiIuro said. Now a different calculation is used to determine which communities have students with more identifiable financial needs.

Then there’s another calculation the state uses to determine how much a particular community is able to fund its educational programs itself. “They divide that by the number of students: How much taxable property do you have per student, then they compare that to the state average,” he said, adding that all those numbers go into a “quadratic” formula to determine what share of state aid each district receives. Portsmouth, DiIuro said, “has a lot of taxable property and very few students.” 

In other words, the state is saying that taxpayers in Portsmouth can afford to pay more for education than in most other communities — including Barrington. “We have 50 percent more taxable properties than Barrington,” said DiIuro, in explaining the discrepancy.

Portsmouth’s “quadratic mean” — basically the state’s share of educational funding — is listed at just 10 percent, while Barrington’s is over 25 percent. (Poorer districts have much higher quadratic means — 89.3 percent for Woonsocket, 85.6 percent for Providence, and 77 percent for Pawtucket.)

“It gives the impression that Portsmouth taxpayers can bear more of the burden than the other districts,” said Fred Faerber III, a member of the School Committee who is often critical of the funding formula. “Going forward, I don’t think it’s going to be any better.”

“The formula is what it is,” said Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, adding school officials knew they were in for another hit this year. The first draft of the school budget will be presented to the School Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 15, he said.

What about a cap?

While state educational aid is based on a rigid formula that supposedly eliminates politics and favoritism from the equation, Kenworthy and DiIuro said the state should at least make it more manageable from a budgetary standpoint by putting some kind of cap on what a district can gain or lose from year to year — similar to the 4-percent state-mandated cap on municipalities’ spending increases.

“These numbers can swing wildly, but there’s no collar on it,” said DiIuro, noting that Portsmouth is losing 8 percent in state aid next year. “Does Barrington really need $2 million more this year than last? They give us a cap, but they don’t have a cap.”

Faerber agreed that something needs to change because the big losses in state aid is really hurting Portsmouth’s educational programs.

“It’s one thing that Barrington may get more money, but why $2 million? Why is it so much more?” Faerber said, adding that the local school district has done a good job over the years in keeping spending increases to a minimum.

“We’re being shortchanged for being frugal with our investments, more than any of the other communities,” he said.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.