Portsmouth presents 2024 wish list to state legislators

Universal free school meals, reviving general revenue sharing top requests

By Jim McGaw
Posted 12/19/23

PORTSMOUTH — Reinstating general revenue sharing to cities and towns, free meals for all public school students and incentive pay to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters are some …

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Portsmouth presents 2024 wish list to state legislators

Universal free school meals, reviving general revenue sharing top requests


PORTSMOUTH — Reinstating general revenue sharing to cities and towns, free meals for all public school students and incentive pay to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters are some of the things local officials would like to see in 2024.

During a joint session last week, members of the Town Council and School Committee outlined their legislative priorities to three local lawmakers, all from Portsmouth: Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72), Rep. Michelle McGaw (D-Dist. 71) and Sen. Linda Ujifusa (D-Dist. 11). (Note: McGaw is the wife of this story’s author.)

General revenue sharing has long been a hot-button issue for the council; it topped members’ list of legislative priorities both this year and last. The council says although general revenue to municipalities was cut by the legislature in 2010 after the financial crash of 2009, the state has seen healthy budget surpluses over the past four years.

“Cities and towns were forced to increase regressive property taxes to make up the reduction in state revenue,” stated the council’s priorities list. “The past surpluses and estimated 2024 surplus in the amount of $98 million would allow the state to help relieve the burden of property taxes on the citizens.”  

School Committee members, as they do every year, said the state funding formula for schools needs to be more equitable. 

As a Portsmouth Times story in February of this year pointed out, Portsmouth schools rank near the bottom when it comes to per-pupil state educational funding. When Gov. Daniel McKee’s fiscal 2024 budget was proposed, Barrington — a community to which Portsmouth often compares itself — was slated to received nearly double the amount of per-pupil state aid ($3,197) than Portsmouth ($1,602).

Several determinants are used when calculating the funding formula, but one of the main reasons Portsmouth gets a smaller slice of the pie is because it has fewer students than Barrington and about 50 percent more taxable properties. In other words, the state says taxpayers in Portsmouth can afford to pay more for education than in most other communities — including Barrington.

That’s no comfort to local officials, however, who say the more affluent districts such as Barrington and East Greenwich have received the greatest percentage increases in state aid per pupil over the past three years.

“I think our big point this year is more equitable funding is necessary,” said Emily Copeland, who chairs the School Committee. “At the state level, we need to have a cap on these swings.”

The school board requested that the state instituted a 2-percent cap on any aid increase or decrease that could impact districts for fiscal year 2025.

The committee also asked legislatives to support an increase in the high-cost special educational categorical fund that’s included in the funding formula aid. “The cost of educating students with disabilities continues to increase even for the most well-managed school budget.

For example, the 2023-24 cost of out-of-district tuition for Portsmouth is estimated to be over $1 million. Portsmouth typically receives around $100,000 from the high-cost special education categorical fund to help offset these costs,” the school board stated in its priorities list.

Council member Charles Levesque said he was also in support of more funding for special education, noting the high percentage of incarcerated people who have learning disabilities. “This becomes a pay now or pay later situation,” he said.

Legislators were also asked to urge state leaders to fix the out-of-district statewide transportation program, as school officials said the current system is not cost-effective or efficient.

Free lunches

Topping the School Committee’s list, however, was universal free school breakfast and lunch. 

“Data and information collected at the national level shows that too many children who need free or reduced-price school meals are not certified to receive them; the eligibility requirement for free school meals is out of reach for many low-income families, and school districts are struggling to respond to school meals debt,” according to the school board, which said it’s time for Rhode Island to join a growing number of states, including Massachusetts, in instituting free breakfast and lunch for all students.

“Offering free meals to all students would eliminate the barriers for children whose families’ income is near the cutoff line to receive free school meals. Universal free school meals would eliminate the stigma some children fear of being different from their classmates. School districts would no longer have to collect unpaid meal fees from families or absorb the costs of uncollected debt,” the committee said.

Cortvriend urged both town and school officials to work with the League of Cities and Towns and the R.I. Association of School Committees by Jan. 8 to build up support for legislation addressing their concerns, pointing out that free school lunches and municipal revenue sharing carry big price tags. Free school meals, which would cost anywhere from $20 to $40 million, have a lot of support in the House of Representatives, she added.

Council member Keith Hamilton said state leaders should be able to fund free school meals and reinstate general revenue sharing. “Finding $100 million in the budget to do both? Piece of cake,” he said.

Retainment and recruitment

In September the Town Council approved Police Chief Brian Peters’s employee retention plan with the aim of incentivizing officers to stay with the department through monetary stipends. Last week, council members asked legislators to support additional state funding for the recruitment of public safety personnel for all departments, and additional funding to support their retention.

“This would create some kind of incentive implemented statewide,” said Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr.

Ujifusa agreed more needs to be done to attract and hold on to good public safety employees. She noted that due to a number of factors — COVID, the aging population, increase mental health demands and the lack of primary physicians — municipalities are relying a lot more on rescue workers to provide emergency care.

“We have a shortage across the state of first responders,” she said.

More reliable broadband service for Aquidneck Island was one of the council’s priorities last year, and it was brought up again this year by both town and school officials. 

“Access to high-quality, affordable broadband continues to be an important concern for the Portsmouth community, which is mostly ‘underserved’ with regard to broadband, according to federal standards cited in a January 2022 report from Connect Greater Newport,” the school board stated. “Many families in the Portsmouth school community cannot access reliable, high-quality broadband at a reasonable rate, something that has become increasingly important for distance learning and other aspects of education.”

The committee urged the state delegation “to continue to prioritize advocating for access to reliable, high-quality and affordable broadband to help Portsmouth families.Secondly, we respectfully request our state delegation engage with Rhode Island Commerce to call for broadband competition, through new marketplace entrants accountable to their community partners by being forthcoming and transparent.”

Portsmouth Town Council, Portsmouth School Committee, Rep. Terri Cortvriend, Rep. Michelle McGaw, Sen. Linda Ujifusa

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.