Woonsocket's attempt to address one of the factors officials say led to the city's latest deficit — state aid which does not adequately help fund city schools — met a dead end last week when Superior Court Associate Justice Netti C. Vogel dismissed the case.
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.
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.
In the decision, Vogel said there is no fundamental right to education, and neither poverty nor wealth could be used to argue equal protection. "In the absence of a fundamental right, and where the General Assembly‘s legislation has not delineated any suspect classification, the General Assembly‘s action can only be unconstitutional if the 'classification established bears no reasonable relationship to the public health, safety, or welfare.', " Vogel wrote.
City officials support an appeal.
"I think it was pretty disgusting. They gave the whole suit short shrift," said Mayor Leo Fontaine. He said he supports appealing the decision, which he said ignores recent changes to the RI constitution.
The League of Women Voters of Rhode Island have posted a study of a 2003 ammendment on the separation of powers they argued may allow judicial review of General Assembly decisions (see attached .pdf).
But Vogel said the complaint brought by Pawtucket and Woonsocket did not meet the test for judicial intervention. "It is important to note that this Court evaluates legislative enactments with extreme deference: the Rhode Island Supreme Court will interfere with such enactments ―only when the legislation at issue could palpably and unmistakably be characterized as an excess of legislative power. (City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, 662 A.2d 40, 44-45 (R.I. 1995) (citing Kennedy v. State, 654 A.2d 708, 711 (R.I. 1995)). Indeed, the Supreme Court has said it will not invalidate a legislative enactment ―unless the party challenging the enactment can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to th[e] court that the statute in question is repugnant to a provision in the constitution," Vogel wrote.
Vogel added that the acts of the legislature are "plenary," or executive and immune from judicial review. But the LWV analysis of the 2003 ammendment asserts the actions of the legislature are no longer plenary, a decision confirmed in a 2004 decision regarding the CMRC, summarized by CommonCauseRI.org.
Jason P. Becker, blogger and research specialist at the R.I. Department of Education, offers an alternative take on the issue, and points to a section of the state constitution that says it's up to cities and towns to raise taxes to make up the difference between state aid and school budget demands. That solution was blocked with the defeat of the supplemental tax bill in June.
Fontaine supports an appeal of Vogel's decision. "We've got to fight for every penny that we can get," he said.
School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier also wants to fight the decision. She said the School Committee should ask for an appeal. "I know I'm voting to appeal it," she said.