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Budget Commission Tells Lawyers To Hold School Committee Appeal Of Funding Suit Dismissal

Panel questions Superintendent on timing of bus contract notice.

Woonsocket's Budget Commission voted today to tell the School Committee's lawyers to hold off on an appeal of the dismissal of their suit against the state for a more equitable funding formula.

The suit, Woonsocket School Committee, et al v. The Honorable Lincoln Chafee, et al, alleges the General Assembly has failed to provide adequate funding to meet obligations they've mandated during the last 15 years.

In July, Superior Court Associate Justice Netti C. Vogel upheld the constitutionality of the state funding formula in the decision without taking on the question of the fairness of state aid distribution to urban communities, stating it is not the court's place to intervene in General Assembly actions.

Chairman Bill Sequino suggested that they postpone discussion of the appeal to a later date to give them more time to review the matter.

In that case, "It might be prudent to have the attorneys not move forward with the appeal," said Budget Commission Legal Counsel Ed Alves, since it hasn't been approved by the Budget Commission yet.

The Commission voted to tell the attorneys to attend their next meeting to discuss the appeal but not move ahead with it. 

The Commission also rejected a contract with Durham School Services to continue providing bus service to the district on a pre-payment basis. Sequino and other members of the Commission objected to the pre-payment clause, noting their previous bills with the company have been paid.

Instead, the Commission voted to exercise the School Department's option under the existing $1.5 million contract to extend it for one year.

School Department Facilities Director Peter Fontaine said he would discuss the decision with Durham officials. Supt. Giovanna Donoyan said the contract has to be settled in time for school to start by Aug. 28.

Commission member Dina Dutremble noted the contract asked for approval 30 days in advance of the school year's start. "We're already 30 days behind and we're just getting this today," Dutremble said.

"When did the School Committee act (to approve the pre-pay contract)?" Commission member Leo Fontaine asked.

"June 18," Donoyan said.

Fontaine took issue with the School Committee's action to approve the contract without notifying the Budget Commission. He said it seemed the Committee felt it was OK to approve spending, "But basically takes a pass on addressing the financial side of it."

"The School Committee acted on this in June," said Comission member Peder Schaefer, so why was the Commission just seeing it in July?

"A lot of things happened," said Donoyan, including a long scramble to get the school department's budget straightened out. "I'm really sorry that we didn't get this to you."

Fontaine suggested that the Budget Commission should get copies of the School Department's agenda so they can be on the lookout for new surprises. David Eaton, advisor to the Budget Commission, said the Commission already shares minutes with the School Committee, but he could arrange to get the agendas too. "Because you're right," he said.

Fontaine said the Budget Commission would have to actively check on the School Committee now, since they were obviously not bothering to make motions during their meetings to apprise the Budget Commission of important developments.

David T August 17, 2012 at 11:23 PM
Rene, something like you proposed should be in place here, right? But I wonder if the reason it doesn't has to do with the mayor (and for that matter the council) wanting to keep his distance from WED knowing that its a political hand grenade. The way things are now, he can say the "city" side is balanced and put all the blame on the "school" side. Going forward, if the school requests this level of, lets call it "participation", he would have to go on record as saying yes or no.
David T August 17, 2012 at 11:40 PM
James, it sounds like you think they should have more involvement at the local level. If that's what you believe, I agree with you. I don't really know what the real expectation is of our state elected officials and the level of local involvement we are thinking about. But it just seems to make sense that they would at least have the curiosity to want to be part of the solution at the local level, whether they were invited or not. I don't know if you heard of or went to the meeting held at the library back in the spring which was a joint work type session of the council, mayor and at least Anita Maguire Forcier from the SC in which the local delegation was invited to. I was there and was shocked to hear Lisa's response was, to me bizarre. She acted as if she didn't have the details of what the city was facing and got very blustery. I have no special access to the city or the school but got all the facts I needed from simply attending all the meetings as a resident. So, again the delegation is absent from this process at it's most important point to date. I mean come on, at least show up like we do at some of the meetings to show you are staying informed, right?
David T August 18, 2012 at 12:06 AM
I want to add that the attorneys representing WOON and Pawtucket pathetically made a presentation to the school committee with Bill Sequino present. Sad because I actually think this suit is valid because the funding formula itself is designed to increase the urban funding but only after a number of years. To me thats acknowledgment enough that the current rate of funding is way off. But, and folks this is true, the state doesn't want to jump straight to the final funding level now because of the "distress" it will cause the smaller towns who over time will receive lower funding rates. Meanwhile the urbans are distressed and becoming more distressed, unable to make up the difference through cuts or taxes. The presentation was pathetic because when the lawyers were asked how much it would cost to make the appeal to a higher court, they couldn't come up with a number and were afraid to even ballpark it. Now, one last point on this, Bill Sequino is from one of those towns who will over time lose some state funding to the urbans. Does anyone else think he should recuse himself from this issue of the funding formula since if Woon and Pawt are successful, his town will feel some immediate pain? And by the way, his town could actually survive such a set back as they pay most of their school department's budget and the state pays a small percentage of it.
Russell Archambault August 18, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Rene your proposal sounds great. Why the mayor serving as chair? would the chair of city or town council also work ?
Rene M. Lafayette August 28, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Gentlemen (David T and russell archambault), sorry about my delay in responding, I have been off "The Patch" for a few weeks. (Sounds like a nicotine issue doesn't it?) First, David, I think your comments are spot on, however, moving ahead, the "city" side needs to take responsibility for the entire picture of the city's finances. Russell, I used the model of Leominster, MA and other communities where the mayor by law is also concurrently the school committee chair. Remember, there is a ballot question on having an appointed School Committee that Woonsocket voters will have the chance to weigh in on.

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