Editorial: Bristol Warren schools short-changed again

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Bristol Warren Regional School District leaders must wonder why they bother trying. When they ask for the moon, they get cut. When they don't, they get cut. Watching these Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee meetings every year, one begins to feel they are just sport for the politicians who wield the power.

Placed there to do one thing — release money to the public schools — Joint Finance Committee members feel beholden to one group of constituents — taxpayers. In this arena, school students and school leaders are the adversary.

As they gather to render judgment on the schools and their spending, they must take action or appear weak. So they cut. Perhaps that's why Bristol and Warren are near the bottom of the ranks in terms of local investment in education among Rhode Island towns.

Such was the case again this year, even though this was the first time in a decade the school district submitted a budget that would have increased spending more than a trickle. School Committee Chairman Paul Silva made the point eloquently during their March 16 meeting, when he reminded the politicians from Bristol and Warren that they have approved respective 35 and 40 percent increases in their own municipal budgets since 2009, but the school budget has increased just 4 percent in that same time.

Going into the meeting, it seemed likely this would be the year Bristol and Warren fully invested in the towns’ children. JFC member and Warren Town Councilman Joe DePasquale indicated exactly that during the first budget hearing March 9, saying he and his colleagues from Warren support fully funding. Hopes were further bolstered when JFC Chairman and Bristol Town Councilman Andy Tyska opened the final budget hearing March 16 by urging his fellow committee members to approve the full budget.

But that’s where support for the school district ended.

Mr. DePasquale walked back the comments he had made only a week before. Mr. Tyska could find no support from his Bristol colleagues. And Warren Town Councilman Steve Thompson proposed slashing the school district request in half.

Resident after resident took to the microphone to urge the JFC members to fully fund the schools this year, and JFC members listened quietly as those they serve urged them to do the right thing. Then they spent more time patting themselves on the back for finally getting along after years of cross-town fighting — before immediately throwing jabs at each other, of course — than they did actually debating the merits of funding a regional school district.

In the end, the JFC approved a modest 2 percent increase in local school investment — just $700,000 in a $54.4 million budget. When combined with state aid cuts, the school district will only get about $200,000 more than last year (an increase of less than half a percent), leaving it struggling to find a way to meet rising costs.

This district faces the scrutiny of poor public perception, cares for aging and needy buildings, and houses a larger-than-most-people-realize low-income population, yet it has been a fiscally responsible steward for a decade. However, that doesn't matter. The joint committee of Bristol and Warren politicians showed that fiscal responsibility won't be rewarded. It seems the schools need to play the game better and start asking for the moon again.

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Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc., email mrego@eastbaynewspapers.com.