On July 29, members of Save Our Schools (SOS), the local education advocacy group spearheading the effort to restore the funding, officially requested the referendum. After a strong grassroots push over the last two weeks, SOS delivered 2,039 signatures to the town clerk's office on Tuesday morning.
"This just gets us in the game," SOS Founder David Croston said of the petition drive on Tuesday. "A lot of work is in front of us to convince the voters and show how positive a system we have right now. We'll do our best in the next six weeks to show what a wonderful school system we have and to show what an important investment it is to Portsmouth."
Opponents of the funding increase have also vowed to hit the pavement and present their case to voters. Resident Joe Lorenz, vice president of the taxpayers' group known as Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC), has been a vocal opponent of the funding increase.
Lorenz, who is also a member of the Tea Party and the local and state Republican committees, said that while he supports the right of SOS to make their case to the voters and petition the government, he expects Republicans, Tea Partiers, and concerned taxpayers to press their case as well.
He predicts that the anti-government, anti-incumbent "phenomenon crossing the country this year" will play a role in the Portsmouth referendum.
"You're going to realize that at the voting booth because people are fed up with too much spending, too little accountability, too much debt for our grandchildren," he said. "The Tea Party is going to be recognized during this referendum vote without having to go out and bang on pots and pans."
The school funding issue will, in some ways, be a role reversal of a 2006 effort in which PCC collected over 2,000 signatures petitioning for a special town meeting, known as "The Tent Meeting," to cut a $1.6 million increase in school funding approved by the Town Council.
In 2006, that special town meeting drew 2,500 voters. Among those voters, 1,284 shot down the increase after a group supporting the schools walked out of the tent.
The matter ended up in Superior Court under a Caruolo Action in 2007, in which the school department sued the town and the funding was restored. Both sides hope that a costly Caruolo Action is avoided this time around.
In 2007, a special referendum election was held to approve changes to the town charter. That election drew about 31 percent of the town's registered voters. Those charter changes created the process for the special referendum election that will presumably take place this fall.
Following the council's July 28 budget vote, the SOS group re-organized and held a rally to educate voters about the stakes involved. Members of PCC held their own counter-rally. Members of SOS – a group of about 300 parents, teachers and students – went out to high-profile spots in town to collect the signatures.
"The effort was challenging because of the hot summer conditions," said SOS Member Nancy Zitka, who spearheaded the signature drive.
"It was a brutal week and a half." Zitka, who ran unsuccessfully for School Committee four years ago, said that "people were empathetic and very supportive of this petition because many are, like myself, people that moved here because of the schools."
Zitka acknowledged that "it did require a lot of educating on our part" to get some voters to sign the petition.
"The economy is on everyone's mind and people feel like they are taxed enough," she said. "People don't realize that a majority of the funds for education come from local taxes and not from federal and state taxes."
Zitka, who has a 13-year-old daughter in the middle school, said that she is concerned that with the enactment of the new state educational funding formula, "next year will be even more miserable than this year because the state of Rhode Island believes that the town has the ability to pay considerably more than it does for public education."
She claims that if the funding is not restored, "next year, it will be impossible to maintain any sort of infrastructure. We need that money as a base to move."
Members of SOS say that the Portsmouth schools have been responsible with taxpayers' money. They point to the per-pupil cost cited in a recent Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report, indicating that the town has one of the lowest per-pupil educational costs in the state. Portsmouth pays $11,500 per student, they say, while neighboring Middletown's per-pupil cost is $15,000 and Newport pays about $18,000 per pupil.
However, opponents of the funding restoration point out that Rhode Island's per-pupil educational costs are significantly more than the national average.
Of the entire town budget, "about 70 percent is for teachers and administrators' salary and benefits," Lorenz said. "The default position of education is 'we want more, the taxpayer should give up more' vs. 'let's see how efficiently and effectively we can run our operations.' We are providing an awful lot of money to the schools, and the schools are providing an awful lot of money to teachers and administrators in their salary or benefits. The facts are that they are consuming 70 percent of the budget. At some point, there will be nothing left for fire, police, and public services."
SOS agrees that these issues need to be addressed, but that if voters do not approve the referendum, schools would be funded at 1.5 percent below the rate of inflation. Croston says that Portsmouth's schools would face significant cuts to interscholastic sports and intermurals, "winter and spring sports are in question, art and music programs would be at half of what they used to be."
Zitka pointed out that those types of cuts cut put the high school's accreditation in jeopardy. "Portsmouth attracts highly-educated military families. Who's going to want to move into this town?"
That was a point echoed by Croston. "We can't be shortsighted about this," he said. "This is a positive investment for our community. It benefits every taxpayer in Portsmouth. With a strong school system, not only do we have intelligent students with opportunities in the future in this very demanding job market, but as a community we have people desirous of moving to our town and buying homes."
"It adds additional pressure upon all our contracts, additional pressure on staffing and teacher/pupil ratios," Croston, a former School Committee member and parent, said. "It's the very thing that we don't want in our school system."
He said that the group hopes to avoid a costly Caruolo Action in Superior Court, as occurred in 2007, when the school department sued the town for additional funding and a judge ordered the town to allocate an additional $544,000.
Daniel Gordon Jr., who is a Republican candidate for the District 71 seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, opposes the funding increase. Pointing to the recent dismissal of a Caruolo Action in Cranston, he says that the courts are not likely to intervene in Portsmouth's case.
Gordon claims that despite the group's claims that it is an independent group, SOS is "a lobbyist front group for unionized teachers" with strong ties to Democrats. Gordon insists that taxes are too high as it is and that the funding increase would benefit teachers more than students.
"There is no magical well of money that you can spring forth to enrich a certain number of individuals," Gordon said. "Once we have no more, there is no more. What's the next option, eliminating snow plowing? It's simple Finance 101. We can't afford it anymore."
Furthermore, he says, "If the voters approve the referendum, the amount will exceed the (state-mandated) budget cap and will require a super-majority (council) vote to approve sending out a supplemental tax bill to the citizens of Portsmouth, and that's not going to happen."
Croston and SOS members say that the 20 cents per thousand dollar of assessed value tax increase that would pay for the funding increase is a "no brainer."
"This investment is critical to maintaining the community as we know Portsmouth to be today," Croston said. "We're building an impressive multi-faceted campaign that will emphasize the positive things in our schools and make the case."
Lorenz said that he expects both sides to make a full-court press effort to educate voters. "We will find out when the votes are counted," he said. "When you look at the results in student performance, one could come away with a doubt about whether more money equals better education. There's so much data to suggest it's not true."
Presuming the petition signatures are certified, Portsmouth's voters will have their opportunity to weigh-in at the special referendum election less than two months away.