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School Dept. to Create 'Deficit Reduction Plan' After Referendum Fails

The school department will present a 'deficit reduction plan' at the next School Committee meeting on Oct. 12. Meanwhile, both the PCC and SOS react to Tuesday's special election results.

Portsmouth's voters have spoken, soundly defeating a referendum Tuesday that would have restored $765,301 that the Town Council cut from the Fiscal Year 2010-11 school budget. In light of the outcome, school officials are now planning to present a deficit reduction plan to the School Committee next Tuesday.

Superintendent Susan Lusi and School Finance Director Mark Dunham did not return calls for comment on Wednesday, but Lusi e-mailed a brief statement to Patch.

"The Portsmouth community has spoken," she said. "The administration will be bringing a deficit reduction plan forward for the School Committee's consideration at its meeting of October 12."

Although it is not clear what cuts that plan would be recommending, school officials previously indicated that the largest cuts would be to areas not mandated under the Rhode Island Department of Education's Basic Education Program (BEP) – mainly cuts to art and music programs, as well as sports.

What is clear is that the school department will not be suing the town for additional funding under a Caruolo Act. Last month, the School Committee voted not to pursue the matter should the will of voters indicate a desire to accept the Town Council's reduced allocation.

Both sides reflected on the two-month-long budget battle Wednesday, a day after 29 percent of the town's voters turned out to weigh-in on the referendum, on which 2,198 voters opted to keep the current school budget vs. the 1,690 favoring the budget increase, which would have raised property taxes by 20 cents per thousand.

Save Our Schools (SOS)—the local educational advocacy group that had successfully gathered enough signatures to force the referendum and presented the case for the spending increase—and Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC)—the taxpayers' group that campaigned against the budget hike—both looked ahead to the Nov. 2 general election. The outcome of that election will help shape the educational funding debate and policy locally and statewide.

"We are disheartened by yesterday's results," said SOS Founder David Croston. "The public voted their conscience as they understood it. One of SOS' biggest roles in the next weeks will be to try to reiterate our arguments as to why these funds were needed. Even though we have lost, it is critically important to make sure that the data that we were using is still understood by the public."

Croston accused PCC and some political candidates of misrepresenting data about the school district's finances. "We think the misinformation that was put out into everyone's front lawn in a bag and a couple rocks helped drive a negative perception of the schools," he said. "We disagree with that. Up until the next three weeks, our goal is to try to double our efforts to try to educate the public."

Larry Fitzmorris, president of the PCC, denied that his group misrepresented the facts.

"They would like to presume our numbers are wrong and there's are right," he said. "Budget numbers are always in transition from what they are today to what they may be. We became surprised that the amount of reserve funds was as large as it was. The idea that we dreamed these up was false."

Croston, who is a former member of the School Committee and a current candidate, said that SOS—now officially incorporated as a referendum question advocacy group—may file as a political action committee in an effort to back candidates that support its agenda.

Croston predicted that the budget cuts would hurt even more due to Portsmouth's relatively conservative school budgeting.

"Portsmouth is that much more efficient than any other district (in the state)," he said. "We're really down to the bottom line. Even a one percent cut is significant and a cut that actually goes against programs."

Fitzmorris said that PCC will be interested to see the school administration's deficit reduction plan.

"Obviously, the referendum decided that issue," he said. "They're required by state law to adopt a final budget in balance. Expenditures have to be the same or less than revenues. They're going to have to make some adjustments. I presume they will make sacrifices in art education and music at the elementary level. That's the decision that the school committee makes."

Both sides agreed that parent-teacher organizations, along with sports booster clubs, and music and arts booster organizations would likely take on a greater fundraising role in an effort to offer private funding to offer art, music and sports programs to students.

Fitzmorris said that PCC has no plans to become a PAC. However, the group will endorse a slate of candidates and will also host a moderated forum for all local candidates Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the middle school.

Fitzmorris said that the forum will offer candidates of all political stripes an equal opportunity to present their cases to the voters. "We try not to make it partisan or biased," he said. "We don't ask loaded questions. We ask them questions relevant to public policy issues or as we see them. We've got some questions.

"Audience members get opportunity to ask them questions. Candidates are encouraged to bring their supporters." 

Page Jest October 07, 2010 at 02:57 PM
Of course the PCC misrepresented the facts. They always do. For example, they wrote in their September 27 letter that they mailed, "This fiscal year, our taxes have increased the maximum under the property tax cap." Is that true? Well, yes it is. But it is so lacking of context that it is misleading. It implies our taxes have gone up A LOT! After all, it is the MAXIMUM!!! Wow! The Maximum! We gotta put the brakes on! Right? Yet.... If you own a median priced home in Portsmouth, $350,000, guess how much that MAXIMUM amount of increase is....... Less than 5 bucks. Cry Havoc!!!! Five Bucks! The NERVE of those trying to go any farther! See? That's how you "misrepresent" the truth. You say something that isn't a lie, but is still nothing more that fear-mongering spin designed to take reality (5 dollars) and make it seem outrageous (the MAXIMUM!). The PCC does this all the time. It's too bad the people were bamboozled by the PCC this time. Thank goodness the people don't always listen to them, otherwise we would not have the wind turbine and we'd still have the tent meeting. No one should ever trust the PCC on their "facts".... The haven't earned that.
Ralph Mace October 07, 2010 at 05:05 PM
Page - It is unfortunate that you have chosen this approach to vent your displeasure. Are the statements by PCC any more misleading than the "Save Our Schools" mantra that was heard over and over again? The only risk to the school system was that it might actually have to learn how to manage a budget. Will the quality of education suffer? Probably not. There is a process in place that can be used to breech the property tax cap. If you disagree with the cap, that process is open to you. And by the way, my homes value is well below the median you mentioned and I still opposed the increase. In a time of economic trouble, the government, including the school system, has to learn to make due with the available resources. Looking for an increase is simply unconscionable.
Portsmouth Concerned Citizen October 07, 2010 at 06:19 PM
Ralph. I understand your point. You're saying each group has the right to voice something. However, I would ask what you think the SOS mantra is? What is the part that you think was misleading? It would be interesting to know - I'm not slamming you. I would also say the school system and administration manages to the budget just fine. If you remember, they were accussed of having a surplus (accused of apparently hiding), even though it was made public at an Aug. 10 school meeting. I think what you mean is you'd rather have the school committee create a budget that you feel is less "expense heavy". You could argue that point wither way - for sure. You might remember that the Town Council also turned down a vote to raise funds "to the cap" - giving school ops a potion of their request - to "meet in the middle" so to speak. And I'm not saying that that was a good or bad thing. The deficit was actually caused at the state level because of the "gist" state funding formula. As a result of Tuesday's vote, the school are now operating on less. One last point - "the government", as you call it, is made up of community members that pay the same taxes you do. Why try to make them sound as if they don't bear the same burden? Do you really think that any member of our elected officials want to pay more taxes? You have an opinion, and you're entitled to that. That is one of the things that makes our country great. I just hope it is based on facts - not on anything else.
Resident Cynic October 07, 2010 at 08:30 PM
Page Look below: I wish I gotten at least one increase in the past 5 years, here is the private sector we have had to put up with no raises and increased benefit costs every year. So pardon me if I don't shed a tear about only 4+%. The Maximum levy as defined by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: RIGL § 44-5-2 Maximum levy – ….In its fiscal year 2009, a city or town may levy a tax in an amount not more than five percent (5%) in excess of the total amount levied and certified by that city or town for its fiscal year 2008. In its fiscal year 2010, a city or town may levy a tax in an amount not more than four and three-quarters percent (4.75%) in excess of the total amount levied and certified by that city or town in its fiscal year 2009. In its fiscal year 2011, a city or town may levy a tax in an amount not more than four and one-half percent (4.5%) in excess of the total amount levied and certified by that city or town in its fiscal year 2010. In its fiscal year 2012, a city or town may levy a tax in an amount not more than four and one-quarter percent (4.25%) in excess of the total amount levied and certified by that city or town in its fiscal year 2011. In its fiscal year 2013 and in each fiscal year thereafter, a city or town may levy a tax in an amount not more than four percent (4%) in excess of the total amount levied and certified by that city or town for its previous fiscal year.
Resident Cynic October 07, 2010 at 08:31 PM
Need to put on my reading glasses before I submit, sorry.
Ralph Mace October 07, 2010 at 10:42 PM
PCC - As far as I was concerned, the group name, Save Our Schools, was the mantra. The name carries with it the implication that, to oppose their point of view, will contribute to or cause the failure of the Portsmouth school system. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is understandable that some feel that ever-increasing expenditures are justified for education. In my opinion, we should all be looking for a way to limit spending until the economy improves. To do otherwise is irresponsible. As Resident Cynic points out, increases in pay and benefits have been rarities for some time in the private sector. Why should the public sector be any different?
Meghan October 08, 2010 at 06:30 PM
Are you serious about the quality of education not being affected? That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. No one wants to spend a penny more to fix the schools. Gee I wonder why 3 million American jobs are filled by other countries. Because are schools systems are going down the drain. So we are in a recession yet there are 3 million jobs being filled by non-Americans. Guess who's living the American dream now? The reason those jobs aren't being filled is because American's don't have the math and science skills needed....Pretty crazy.
Concerned about the PCC October 09, 2010 at 02:44 AM
Ralph, Are you saying the lack of funding won’t negatively impact the quality of education? Using the same logic the $71 tax increase would have had no impact on your personal finances. Right? You could have just “tightened your belt” or “trimmed some fat” and everything would have been fine. Out of curiosity, when you were growing up, what was the name of the militant watchdog group that made sure your education was not “over funded”? My guess is that there wasn’t one. Your previous generation funded your education. That is how the system works. I am not sure what the reasons are but the PCC has decided that even though their parents and grandparents provided for their education, today’s children are being spoiled with opportunities. The thing that bothers me the most about the PCC is that their “cause” has become a hobby for most of its members. The “fight” has become more entertaining and important than the cause. Don’t believe me? Look at the picture in last Wednesday’s Daily News when the PCC was celebrating their “victory”. It looks like the whole room had BINGO at that same time. The time, energy and financial resources of its members could be directed towards local non-profits and contributing positively to the community. Instead they are participating in activities like driving around on a Sunday morning throwing baggies full of rocks and their “informational” flyer in peoples’ driveways.

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