Open House Sheds Light, Reveals Rifts

http://www.newport-now.com/news/open-house-sheds-light%2C-reveals-rifts/

By Tom Shevlin, April 19, 2013 Newport This Week (Newport-Now.com) 

NEWPORT – School lunches, budgets, the search for a new superintendent, what to do about excess elementary schools, a push for a new parking garage, the redevelopment of the North End, a proposal to require Newport residents to pay as they throw, and the seemingly ever present issue of trust between the city’s top two elected bodies.

They were all topics of conversation on Tuesday when the Alliance for a Livable Newport hosted what it called an open house to discuss citywide issues with members of the School Committee and City Council.

The roughly hour-long session, which drew about two dozen members of the public to the downstairs meeting room of the Newport Public Library, began with a series of questions related to the city’s public schools.

Taking primacy were two lines of questioning: the first seeking clarification regarding the search for a new superintendent, and a second addressing the continued struggles of Rogers High School students on the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, test.

Representing the School Committee were Chairman Dr. Charles Shoemaker and Vice Chair Jo Eva Gaines.

According to Gaines, in finding the city’s next superintendent, a search committee made up of 9-11 parents, students, public officials, members of the school support staff, teachers, and administrators will soon be constituted and a total of five focus groups will be convened.

The aim, she said, is to be as inclusive as possible and reach out into the community to gauge their top priorities.

The search is set to begin in earnest next month, and those interested in participating in the process should look for further updates in the weeks to come.

As for the department’s efforts to boost the city’s flailing test scores, Shoemaker acknowledged that there is room for improvement.

Gaines agreed. Especially as it relates to the high school level where under 30 percent of students tested proficient in math skills, she said that there is room for improvement.

“Math is a problem,” Shoemaker said. “There’s no question about it. It’s not just Newport. It’s across the whole state, and it’s true in a number of other public schools across the country. Lots of people have lots of theories about why that’s occurring. Yes, we have a problem with the kids in 11th grade, as does every other school across the state,” he said. “The good news is that if you look at the 8th graders, they’ve really made some significant gains and I anticipate that those kids who are graduating from the 8th grade will have a much better head start than those kids in high school.”

Gaines agreed. “The state, the commissioner, is very much interested in growth,” Gaines said, adding that so long as those students who did not test proficient in math or reading show improvement in their senior year, they will be issued diplomas.

But, she noted, many will still not be proficient. “And that’s sad,” she said.

Also unfortunate is the persistent friction that seems to exist between the School Committee and their counterparts on the City Council.

When asked if they were open to school’s finance department being absorbed by City Hall, both Gaines and Shoemaker were wary.

“If the city can get the federal government and the state government to give figures in a way that we can’t, then I would welcome them taking it over,” said Gaines in explaining why the committee has in recent years failed to provide a concrete number prior to the city adopting its own fiscal year budget. “We don’t get the information from the federal government, therefore we can’t do anything with it.”

Shoemaker reiterated that point, noting that while two months ago, the department was anticipating running a surplus, today, he said, “We think that we’re in a slight deficit situation.”

That seemed to take Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop, who was representing the council along with Vice Mayor Naomi Neville, off-guard.

Saying that while he has the “utmost respect” for Gaines and Shoemaker, he added, “I don’t have that same respect for the development of the budget process through your administration.”

According to Winthrop, “Budgets are nothing but a series of forecasts about where you’re going to be either at the beginning or the end of the year. And a good accountant will know, not exactly, what it’s going to take to run that department.”

Still, relying on three sources of funding – state, federal, and local –Shoemaker said that there are simply too many unknowns for the committee to provide the city with an accurate forecast in advance of the city’s annual budget process.

Winthrop, however, persisted.

“The fact of the matter is, from an accounting standpoint, we as a council have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure to the taxpayers that we fund you adequately but that we do not over fund you. Without your budget forecast we have no idea how much to allocate.” As a result, the council has opted to simply level-fund the department – a point of contention which has drawn protest from members of the School Committee in recent years.

Adding that he currently has a proposed budget from Middletown’s School Committee on his desk at City Hall, Winthrop concluded his remarks by suggesting that the city not stop at absorbing the school department’s finance office.

“I don’t think that’s the only thing we should take over,” he said. “I also think that we should take over HR administration and we should also take over the maintenance of the buildings and grounds, and let the School Committee focus on what they were elected to do: and that’s educational excellence.”

He continued, “We have a professional staff. We do it, I think, much better than the School Department and we should be allowed to do that for the whole town. I would estimate – and this is just a Harry Winthrop number – that we could save a half a million dollars or more if we were allowed to take over those functions.”

Gaines responded with a familiar, yet broader concern.

“At the bottom of all of this is the big word of trust,” she said. “There is hardly any trust between the School Committee and the City Council. And I say that with all do respect to the council… But as a body, it’s very hard to trust that they’re going to do what’s right for the kids.”

She added, “If we are taken over by the City Council, what is the priority of education in Newport. Are we going to be…second in consideration if a street has to be paved?”

For the past couple of years, School Committee member Sandra Flowers has attended the monthly meetings of the School Committee-City Council Liaison Subcommittee.

“It seems that the agenda never has to be rewritten,” she said. From combining simple functions such as maintenance and groundskeeping operations to restructuring the finance department, the proposals haven’t changed much.

Especially as it relates to groundskeeping, she noted, “That’s been talked about for a couple of years now.” Why, she wondered, couldn’t the city just “jump in and do it.”

There were no answers readily presented during the meeting except for an acknowledgement that the relationship between the two bodies needs to be improved.

That seemed to be underscored when the topic turned toward the proposed establishment of a new charter school in town.

Winthrop, in voicing his support for the concept, noted that he would not be opposed to spending more if it meant that Newport’s school children received a better education.

Shifting to more concrete matters, both Winthrop and Neville expressed their enthusiasm for efforts underway to redevelop the city’s North End.

Long a source of public interest, improving the area north of the Pell Bridge has been a frequent topic of discussion over the years. But as Winthrop noted, there seems to be some real momentum behind recent efforts.

In the coming weeks, a new North End Redevelopment commission will begin their work to determine how best to bring about change to the area.

“There have been a lot of plans that have been developed,” over the years, Winthrop said. And over the coming months, “many of those will be pulled out, dusted off, and looked over and see if they’re still applicable today.”

Citing a number of factors including the state’s commitment to reconfigure the Pell Bridge interchange as well as the ongoing efforts led by the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission to secure the former Navy Hospital property, Winthrop said that he sees reason for optimism when it comes to the North End.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Neville noted that movement is also being seen in the city’s efforts to redevelop the former Navy Hospital property through the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, with a final report on its potential best uses expected back on the property within the next few months.

Also on the city side, attention was briefly paid to the prospect of the council adopting a pay as you throw trash system, which is currently being examined by city staff.

Winthrop was straightforward in his response.

“The proposal before us is really just that today, a proposal,” he said. “Until I can be convinced that it’s a good thing, I am opposed to pay-as-you-throw. I don’t think it fits in Newport, even if economically it works. It doesn’t fit in Newport because of the transient population we have – especially in the summer.”

Neville held a slightly different view.

“At this point, I’d say that I’m more neutral to the idea,” she said, noting that she’s willing to reserve her final assessment until after the various proposals are brought before the council.

Further discussion was also held related to the possibility of constructing a downtown parking garage to help ease the city’s perpetual parking pinch.

While Winthrop didn’t necessarily seem keen on looking at developing a new garage structure in town, he was eager to see plans developed that would relocate the Gateway Center out of the downtown area and in tandem develop a new multi-modal transportation center that would provide parking and public transit for visitors coming to downtown.

As for repurposing the city’s soon-to-be-vacant elementary schools, Gaines said that she’s ready willing and able to do whatever needs to be done to get those schools into the city’s hands and on the market.

But when it comes to what to do with the proceeds from the buildings, a divide was again revealed, as Shoemaker said that he believes the money should go toward maintaining existing school facilities, while Winthrop countered by saying that the funds should be directed to the city’s general fund and allocated to the school department as needed.

The meeting ended with a brief exchange with audience and School Committee member Robert Leary, who suggested that the city be proactive in bargaining with its municipal and school retirees to restructure their post employment benefit plans.

As Leary noted, in recent weeks, both Providence and Cranston have done just that, and achieved significant savings that have helped shore up their long-term finances.

Leary proposed the idea of engaging retirees on the school side last year, but was rebuffed.

Winthrop said that he thinks such a strategy could be a good idea.

Comments (13)

Comment Feed

Response to” Ace”

Obviously as I stated previously, all public school teachers are in the state’s retirement system. The only thing the city or town is responsible for to its teacher retirees is the OPEC, that would be health care, etc. This varies greatly from town to town.Oh , by the way Newport was, to my knowledge,the only one to give Life Blue Cross in 1998 . In fact, I believe, we may be the only one or at least one of the very few cities or towns that gave it’s teachers Life Blue Cross.

When I spoke of Cranston and Providence I spoke mainly of the cities employees. Providence was in over $100,000,000 deficit and the current mayor involved them and did other things to stay afloat. What happened in Central Falls was on the door step. However, you might want to check with them on any OPEC savings from the teachers.

I believe, the Newport City Council and the Newport School Committee should invite the retirees to the table together. Lets involving them in the conversation. Providence and Cranston had success with this.

The Newport School Committee pays almost $4,000,000 for retirees health care. That is almost $1,500,000 more than active employees.

The unfunded liability payment the City of Newport makes varies from year to year. This year they are requesting $1,900,000 for retirees .That is almost a 3% tax raise just for retirees.At some point the city can’t afford this payment and get anything else done then you going have do something. Lets involve the retirees in the solution, lets not wait until to late.

Robert J Leary 8 days ago | reply

Response to Mr. Leary’s comment

It took a while but I finally contacted the leadership of Cranston and Providence retired teachers. Under no circumstances did EITHER group have discussions that led to ANY change in their retirement. How Mr. Leary can state that both communities have had success involving its retirees is obviously incorrect. I challenge Mr. Leary to provide the evidence that would substantiate the fact that the present retired teachers from Providence and/or Cranston gave up anything in their retirement benefits. They both lost their COLA’s—as did Newport and all other participants in the ERSRI—but that was NOT due to talks between the respective committees and the local retirees. Put up—-or shut up!

Ace 10 days ago | reply

response to question posed

Let me answer the questions posed.

What 120 of the 200 teachers means is simply that,120 teachers have Life Blue Cross out of the 200 teachers in Newport.

Providence , Cranston, and other cities have talked to retirees and I would assume there retirees didn’t want changes, but they made them. However, cities can longer afford these benefits as they are constructed.

As far as my pension is concerned , all public school teachers are in the state retirement plan. Oh by the way the state passed major changes to its retirees. RI could no longer afford the way it was structured.

Robert J Leary 18 days ago | reply

ZfHuMJIGnTUrxnJ

I’m out of laeuge here. Too much brain power on display!

Jayne 19 days ago | reply

Your pension

Bob how much of your pension have you donated back to the West Warwick school system ??????

Jack 19 days ago | reply

Response to Mr. Leary’s suggestion

Mr. Leary—-your suggestion that the retired teachers should talk to the School Committee smacks of politics. You were on the School Committee when the last contract with TAN was negotiated. Whether you voted for or against the present 2011-2014 contract is immaterial. I assumed you voted against it—-but you must have read it in order to cast your vote. Page 25, Section K, 4th paragraph reads ” Any medical benefit cost share and above agreed-upon contractual benefits shall not be changed for employees after the date of retirement.” Any retiree who is willing to talk to you or the School Committee about restructuring their post retirement benefits most likely does not represent a vast majority of the retirees——especially if they are aware of the above agreed upon language in their contract. You should forget about the talk—and walk the walk. Deal with the present and upcoming contracts. Accept the past agreed upon contractual language.

Ace 19 days ago | reply

Can someone translate

Mr. Leary’s post? The word salad is nearly incomprehensible. For example: “The teachers only 120 of its 200 members have it.”

Is this how the school committee organizes its thoughts? In an obfuscating stream of consciousness?

Concerned Taxpayer 20 days ago | reply

Real numbers

I do not like to give numbers out without being on target.

You can check the unfunded liability, and the money they are recommending to put in this in fy 2014 budget numbers on the city’s web site. The $675,000 is close to the target for a 1% tax raise.

As far as Life Blue Cross in the school department, you can verify my numbers and who continues to have Life Blue Cross through the school department or on the schools web site under contracts.

Robert J Leary 21 days ago | reply

Questions

Bobby are any of these numbers real numbers? I have seen you on video making numbers up, changing data points right during a meeting, can we be sure you are not doing so right now?

Are you willing to vote to support the idea of putting thanks to the citizens of Newport on Jack’s plaque?

Newporter 21 days ago | reply

Bargaining with retirees

The Newport School Committee as well as the Newport City Council should talk to the retirees. Newport’s unfunded liability payment this year is $1,900,000 considering that around $675,000 is a 1% tax increase. That is almost a 3% tax increase. Providence and recently Cranston have had success with involving its retirees.
Newport School Committee has made great strides with reducing its unfunded liability . In the last contract the school department retiree benefits has decreased from $73,200,000 to $48,900,000.You can’t ignore that!
What happened to the money? The money is in a trust fund The total dollar amount is less $3,500,000 As you can see that will not cover the districts cost for post employment retirement benefits.
As I was told by a former school committee member they acted on what information was given to them. Life Blue Cross was given when the administration told the school committee they would save $1,000,000 by switching from Classic Blue Cross to Coast to Coast Blue Cross. It saved $50,000 !
Since around 2005 there isn’t any Life Blue Cross for our new employees none of them..The last contract with Council 94 members 75% of its membership gave up its Life Blue Cross. All of our administration has given it up. The teachers only 120 of its 200 members have it. That needs to be reduced with each contract.

Robert J. Leary 22 days ago | reply

Vanity

I’d say it is all about who gets their name on the Pell building. How do we ask the committee to thank the citizens on that plaque we all know jack wants his name on?

Newporter 22 days ago | reply

Yes, it is all about trust Ms. Gaines

“Gaines responded with a familiar, yet broader concern.

“At the bottom of all of this is the big word of trust,” she said. “There is hardly any trust between the School Committee and the City Council. And I say that with all do respect to the council… But as a body, it’s very hard to trust that they’re going to do what’s right for the kids.””

If there’s anyone we should trust less than the City Council to “…do what’s right for the kids,” it’s the School Committee.

Just sayin’.

Concerned Taxpayer 22 days ago | reply

Bargaining with retirees

Why would any fair person be in favor of Mr. Leary’s idea of restructuring retiree(s) post employment benefit plans? Everyone knows that restructuring means giving up some thing(s) that the retiree(s) earned as part of their retirement package. If Mr. Leary or anyone else is unhappy with the present terms that future retiree(s) will earn upon their retirement then the school committee should negotiate with the present teachers about their future retirement package. Changing terms of retirement AFTER individuals have already retired is unfair and most likely illegal. What happened to the monies that retirees paid to fund their future retiree costs? Where is that 3% monies that was supposed to go into an escrow account to help defray future costs? Former school committee members were responsible for the present retiree(s) benefit package. Years ago during negotiations with the teachers the school committee broached the subject of life time benefits in exchange for a 0% increase in salaries. Both parties agreed to the terms. Is the school committee going to offer to said retiree teachers compensation for the 0% they agreed to as part of the restructuring of their post employment plan? One would assume at least a 3% salary increase compounded over the many years that the retiree(s) were no longer employed—-PLUS—-the 3% escrow payments that somehow no one wants to remember. Sounds like a real mess!!

Ace 22 days ago | reply

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