Category Archives: News

Select a news topic from the list below, then select a news article to read.

April 17, 2022 Letter

This has been a busy week in Providence, as officials gathered to announce a potential renewal of the Superman Building, while the Mayor officially opened the City’s campaign to educate voters concerning the pension obligation bond.  The first City-wide forum will take place this Thursday, April 21 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School.  I will be joining City officials to describe the proposal and answer our questions.  Given the magnitude and the complexity of this proposal (which requires voter approval to go forward), I encourage you to join us if your schedule permits.  Turning to the General Assembly, this letter will describe the legislation I have filed this year in the areas of education, the environment, public safety and voting rights.

  1. Education

Bill S-2177 would reform the charter school lottery system by causing all children to participate unless they “opt out” (changing the current process that requires children to “opt in”).

Bill S-2439 would reform the charter school lottery system by causing all children to participate unless they “opt out” (changing the current process that requires children to “opt in”) while also providing that certain categories of educationally disadvantaged students would receive a preferential weight in the lottery.

Bill S-2838 would reform the Crowley Act, which governs State takeovers of individual schools and school districts, while also containing additional structures to increase engagement and accountability in the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools.

  1. The Environment

Bill S-2168 proposes a ban on the sale of gasoline powered leaf blowers in Rhode Island beginning July 1, 2023 and a ban on the use of these machines beginning July 1, 2024.

  1. Public Safety

Bill S-2362 would create a misdemeanor offense for riding an all-terrain vehicle on city streets (in those cities where such use is illegal).  It also would impose escalating misdemeanor penalties for violators who ride “in formation with” or illegal ATV riders.

  1. Voting Rights

Resolution S-2232 would establish a commission to review voting systems that can better reflect the majority’s will in multi-candidate primaries or elections, including (but not limited to) ranked-choice voting systems.

Bill S-2555 would introduce ranked-choice voting for General Assembly primaries beginning in 2023. 

  1. Other

Bill S-2505 (which I introduced at the request of Brown University) would reform the requirement of informed consent for doctors and scientists to gain access to (anonymous) patient information for research purposes.

Bill S-2513 (which I introduced at the request of the City’s Planning Department) would clarify that municipalities retain the authority to regulate the use of dwellings as short-term rentals as part of a zoning ordinance notwithstanding certain non-discrimination requirements in State law regarding the imposition of sales and hotel taxes.

Bill S-2850 would reduce the minimum corporate income tax from $400 to $200 and “pay for” this reduction by increasing the tax rate from 7% to 7.5%.  

April 10, 2022 Letter

In the coming days, many of us will observe Holy Week or Passover’s Festival of Freedom.  I hope that those of you who observe these holidays find meaning and fulfillment.  This week’s letter will discuss the conclusion of the State’s search for a Providence superintendent, and how it underscores the need for greater oversight and accountability.

The State’s Unilateral Announcement Of A Permanent Superintendent

As you may remember from my March 27 letter, Rhode Island’s Department of Education (RIDE) effectively lost a full year to fill a vacancy in the office of Superintendent after its first search (which violated School Board Policy) produced a failed candidate.  In response, a group of eight legislators wrote a March 24 letter to the Commissioner urging a prompt search that complied with the School Board’s transparency guidelines, and to respond to our request on an urgent basis.  We received a Response at 10:15 this past Tuesday morning, approximately 45 minutes after  RIDE held a press conference announcing their decision to hire Dr. Javier Montanez as the permanent Superintendent without conducting a formal search.  While the content of the  Response amounts to a non-responsive “lawyer’s letter”, the greater disappointment was RIDE’s decision to sandbag our group by offering no response at all until after they made and announced their decision.  We were not the only legislators who felt they were sandbagged.  The previous Thursday night (March 31), the Commissioner appeared before the House Finance Education Subcommittee (you can watch the video by clicking here), and in response to Representative Slater’s question concerning the Superintendent search (at the 27 minute mark in the video), the Commissioner stated that nothing had been decided, but that “there will be a process that will be released soon” to describe a full participatory search.

I wish Superintendent Montanez every possible success, and I will work to support the success of the State takeover and the Providence Public Schools generally.  With that said, RIDE’s decision to ignore the public’s concerns about the process of this search represented yet another avoidable mistake.  In its letter, RIDE stated that it believed that the need for continuity and stability outweighed the value of a formal search.  Even accepting that premise, however, RIDE could have handled this situation in a more transparent and accountable manner.  When I served on the School Board, Superintendent Diana Lam abruptly left, and we were worried that we would lose a capable Assistant Superintendent (Melody Johnson) if we followed the procedures in our search policy.  Over the course of several meetings held over several weeks, we reviewed a formal amendment to our search policy to deal with specifically defined emergencies, during which time the public could see exactly what we proposed and offer their input.  Once the policy was in place, we followed its requirements, and Dr. Johnson did a wonderful job.  RIDE’s decision to conceal and mislead (however noble its intentions) was yet another avoidable error that underscores the need for the passage of legislation such as Senate Bill 2838 and its companion House Bill 8094 that would create an accountability and engagement structure for the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools.

Seeking Your Support

I am grateful for the opportunity you provided me to serve as our Senator.  In my five months in office, I have learned much about the legislative process and the State’s budget, while beginning to develop my own legislative agenda to advance the policy goals of our District, our City and our State.  Because of the timing of the special election that brought me into office, I am now beginning my re-election campaign for this year’s September 13 Democratic Party primary and (if I win the nomination) the November 8 election.  As described in my November 7 letter, last year’s campaign was significantly more expensive than my previous City Council campaigns, and I was not able to raise sufficient contributions to cover my expenses.  For that reason, I am scheduling a fund raising reception for Wednesday, May 4 at 6:00-8:00 p.m. at the India Restaurant at 1060 Hope Street (details below).  If you wish to attend, you can purchase a ticket by clicking on this link.  If you are unable to attend but wish to contribute to my campaign (at whatever level of support you choose), you can do so by clicking here.

Thank you for your consideration.   

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

  

 

  

April 3, 2022 Letter

I hope you are enjoying your early Spring, which for many of us will officially begin on Thursday with the start of the baseball season. This letter discusses a bill I have introduced to reform our State’s takeover of schools and school districts generally, and the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools in particular.

1.     Background: Legislative Hearings on the Providence Takeover

Because the management of the Providence Public Schools is now the State’s responsibility, I have made that a focus of my work in the Rhode Island Senate. In my letters of November 5 and March 6, I described hearings that the Senate Oversight Committee held which raised questions about the Providence Public Schools’ development of measurable annual goals and concerns by stakeholders regarding a lack of accountability. In my March 27 letter, I discussed a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing at which the Commissioner acknowledged the District’s failure to vet the teachers’ contract publicly, as well as letter by State senators and representatives noting the District’s failure to begin a timely and transparent search for a new Superintendent, which will harm the quality of education in the District over the next year. 

2.     Developing a Legislative Response

Through these hearings, both committees identified failures of policy and execution, which are best addressed through improved management and internal oversight. Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the existing framework (including the lack of meaningful oversight by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education) is not capable of self-improvement. As a result, the only remaining tool is the blunt instrument of legislation. With that in mind, I have been working with colleagues to develop a bill to reform the process by which the State takes over individual schools and school districts in general, and to reform the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools in particular. The legislation is designed to replace the current State takeover law, also known as Section 5 of the Crowley Act. As you can see, the current law consists of a single paragraph, which fails to provide guidelines or standards which could have helped the State avoid some of the problems that have arisen during the Providence takeover.

3.     Description of the Bill

The bill consists of three sections. Section 16-7.1-5 provides a framework for the State’s takeover and turnaround of an individual school. Based on the Massachusetts law, Section 5 contains specific criteria and procedures for (a) determining whether a school’s performance qualifies for State intervention, (b) establishment of a stakeholder committee (with defined membership) to provide recommendations as to the content of a turnaround plan, (c) the contents of the turnaround plan, including specification of annual measurable goals, (d) the additional types of authority granted during the turnaround period, (e) the possible appointment of an external overseer to manage the turnaround and (f) the standards to apply to measure the success of the takeover, and the determination of when to return the school back to its host district. Section 5 is based largely on the existing turnaround law in Massachusetts.

Section 16-7.1-5.1 provides a framework for the State’s takeover and turnaround of an entire school district. Again based on the Massachusetts law, Section 5.1 provides specific criteria and procedures similar to Section 5 expanded to a full-district context. In light of the fact that the Providence takeover and turnaround is already in process, if enacted, these provisions would not apply until the next takeover and turnaround of a school district took place.

Section 16-7.1-5.2 provides a set of guidelines and procedures to address the current situation in Providence, based on what we have learned from the Senate hearings and from your feedback. The bill, if enacted, would direct the Providence Public Schools to update its turnaround plan to include annual measurable goals in a number of basic criteria of student achievement, organizational capacity and parent and family engagement. If enacted, Section 5.2 also would create a nine-member board of trustees that would meet on at least a monthly basis to provide oversight of the district, including review and approval of appointment of senior administrators, setting district-wide policy , reviewing progress towards performance measures and receiving feedback from stakeholders. The bill, if enacted, also would provide guidelines for reviewing the decision of when to end the takeover and return the management of the Providence Public Schools to local authorities.

4.     Legislative Review of the Bill

The bill is the product of two months of conversations and meetings with fellow Senators and State Representatives, stakeholders and expert assistance from the Senate’s Policy Office. Representatives Kislak and Ajello have provided valuable feedback, and they will be sponsoring this bill in the House of Representatives. Following the “regular order” of the legislative process, the bill will be heard in committee in both chambers. Each committee will vet the bill, consider possible amendments and vote whether to advance the bill (possibly with amendments) to the full House and/or Senate for consideration. If the bill passes both chambers in the same form, it will then go to the Governor for review and possible signature.

In short, the bill in its current form is only a proposal, and the public will have several opportunities to present their thoughts and ideas about whether the bill is needed or helpful, and if so, how it can be improved. I believe the bill helps (albeit not perfectly) address the concerns we share regarding the lack of accountability and oversight in the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, and I look forward to working with you and with my Senate colleagues to advance this its policies through the General Assembly, with the goal of improving the quality of the education that our children in Providence receive over the next several years.  

March 20, 2022 Letter

While our hearts continue to go out to the Ukrainians who are stand bravely for democracy and freedom amidst great suffering, we are reminded of how fortunate we are to live our liberal democracy, even with all of its flaws. In that spirit, this week’s letter will discuss the future obligations created by the claimed “one-time” expenditures in the Governor’s ARPA budget. 

As I described in my January 23 letter, the Governor presented three “one time” budgets (federal ARPA funds, federal “capital projects” fund and state surplus) in addition to the traditional annual budget for the General Assembly’s review. (Since that time, we have received a fourth “one time” budget for bipartisan infrastructure funds.) While these “one time” budgets contain a large amount of additional money (almost $2 billion), prudent management requires that it be spent on a “one-time” basis; i.e., that these funds generally not be used in a way that will create programs that require additional funding obligations beyond the exhaustion of the “one time” money. The administration affirmed this principle specifically and clearly in its initial presentation (at Slide 6) that the ARPA proposals “do not lead to outyear budget obligations.” 

In the course of the Senate Finance Committee’s review, however, I began to see contrary indications. For example, on March 10 the administration presented a proposal to use ARPA funds to pay for a “Mental Health Court.” The proposal appeared to be well conceived, and its $1.3 million annual budget was listed as being limited to three years in which ARPA funding is available. I noticed, however, that the proposal included hiring a magistrate. I asked the Judiciary witness to tell us the length of the magistrate’s term. It would be 10 years. I then asked the witness how we were going to pay for the last seven years of that magistrate’s term once the federal funds were exhausted. The answer was that the General Assembly would see the value of the program and decide to incorporate it into future operating budgets. 

I began to ask a similar question for each ARPA presentation, namely what funding obligations the proposal created past the expiration of the federal funds and, if so, how those obligations would be paid for. To each of these inquiries, I received essentially the same answer, namely that the program would prove to be so valuable that the General Assembly would choose to fund it with State operating revenues after the exhaustion of the federal funds. It finally got to the point where I asked the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to prepare a chart listing the future anticipated state funding obligations created by each of the Governor’s “one time” ARPA funding proposals.  The Director agreed to provide me with that list soon.

This year’s budget contains an abundance of “one time” money. We can and should “think big” about the possibilities these additional resources create. With that said, I see value in implementing the Governor’s commitment to fund projects that “do not lead to outyear budget obligations” even if his ARPA budget fails to honor that commitment.  Our State has other competing long-term priorities, such as the Senate leadership’s recent proposal to fund universal pre-K education in Rhode Island over the next five years. These valuable proposals should not be financially pre-empted without due consideration. Also, there are a wealth of critical “one-time” alternatives (such as, for example, increased funding for affordable housing) that do not create the future obligations the Governor’s proposals entail. For all these reasons, I am encouraging my Senate colleagues to consider the future long-term burdens that the Governor’s ARPA programs create for the State operating budget as well the benefits that federal funding can provide in the short term.      

March 27, 2022 Letter

This past week brought two developments concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools. Both demonstrate the difficult balance between the need to achieve educational goals without political interference on the one hand, and the need for accountability and oversight on the other.

a.     The Teachers Contract

The first example occurred during Thursday night’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, when the Commissioner spoke about the current Providence Teachers Union contract for which negotiations began in early 2020, and which was approved in August, 2021. The Commissioner acknowledged that the Hopkins Report and the State had identified that contract as a major impediment to progress, and that its reform was a top takeover priority. The Commissioner stated that she spent hundreds of hours of her time on the contract, and that the State spent more than a million dollars on attorney’s fees. Despite this, the Commissioner was unable to answer a series of basic questions about the content of the Providence teachers’ contract, and how that contract’s terms diverged significantly and unfavorably from other Rhode Island teachers’ contracts.

The Commissioner stated she believed the approved contract was sufficient to meet the District’s goals without invoking the State’s extraordinary authority under takeover law (called the Crowley Act), even though she had stated to the Oversight Committee three weeks ago that the next contract would require extensive reforms to allow the district meet its goals. The Commissioner also stated that it was a mistake not to make the terms of the contract public before it became final. This was a major departure from standard practice in both Providence and throughout Rhode Island, as every other contract to my knowledge goes through a 3-step process where a tentative agreement is negotiated privately, a union ratification is completed confidentially within the union, and then a public body (typically a City Council) reviews the contract publicly for final approval. The Commissioner stated (to my astonishment) that she was unaware of this common practice, despite having invested hundreds of hours of her time and over a million dollars of attorney’s fees, and that she would be sure not to make this mistake again. As I stated during the campaign, the teachers’ contract that the State negotiated was a major disappointment, and the State’s failure to make the terms of the contract public prior to final approval was a dereliction of duty. You can view this portion of the hearing by clicking on this link and advancing to the 1:47 (one hour, 47 minute) mark.

b.     The Superintendent Search

The second example involves the currently stalled search for a new Superintendent. As you may remember, Harrison Peters began his tenure as Providence’s first turnaround superintendent in January 2020 only to have his contract terminated in May 2020 due to a scandal involving his poor decision to hire an administrator with a known record of harming students in Florida who did the same thing when he came to Providence. In the 21 months since, the position has not even been posted. (The District has hired a capable acting Superintendent; however, his temporary status has made it difficult if not impossible for him to lead.) In recent weeks, members of the Providence community have petitioned the School Board asking when the new search is going to begin, and whether it will feature greater community participation than did the first one.

The community has a point. Under standard practice, Providence normally follows the sequence of many (if not most) school district superintendent searches on a 9–12 month cycle. The search begins at the start of the school year, and concludes in the spring. The new superintendent begins work that summer to be ready to open the district for the new school year. Also, Providence’s normal superintendent search process involves extensive public outreach and participation, as presented in Providence Public Schools Policy 301 (also known as CBB). In light of this, a group of Providence General Assembly representatives sent this letter on Thursday to the Commissioner and the members of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, urging the Commissioner to announce promptly a search that complies with the transparency guidelines of Policy 301/CBB. The letter states that the first search produced a poor result, and the subsequent failure to conduct a proper search over the past 21 months amounts to a dereliction of duty. The Commissioner has stated publicly that the process for the next search will be announced soon. I will be watching, and I will be ready to advocate for the next search to meet a higher standard (in both process and results) than the first one met.

c.      Conclusion

These two examples demonstrate how the State takeover of the Providence Public Schools has mishandled the balance between the conflicting goals of removing bureaucratic inertia on the one hand and preserving accountability on the other. I agree that the Providence schools’ pre-takeover governance structure was fundamentally flawed; for example, the City Council interfered excessively (and my efforts to change that were not successful). In its zeal to remove bureaucratic inertia, the State’s takeover opted to collapse all authority and responsibility essentially into a single office. Through that structure, the State has committed fundamental and significant mistakes (hiring a failed superintendent and negotiating a weak contract), each of which involved a lack of transparency that constituted a serious and avoidable dereliction of duty. We do not know for sure whether either or both mistakes could have been avoided had there been greater transparency, oversight and accountability; however, we can say that the closed process that produced those decisions undermined the public’s ability to accept the failures that resulted.   

March 6, 2022 Letter

On Monday night (February 28), the Senate Oversight Committee met for five hours to hear  testimony from the Rhode Island Department of Education and public comment from stakeholders concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) witnesses testified first, supplementing their  testimony with this handout. The Commissioner stated that all of the turnaround plan’s student achievement goals would be extended for two years because the COVID pandemic essentially created two years of lost progress. As a result, the goals that the post-takeover Providence Public Schools set for the 2024-25 school year have been extended to 2026-27. When Committee members asked the Commissioner whether the new, extended performance goals were attainable, she stated that those goals were developed according to what the community wanted, implying that they were not necessarily based on RIDE’s own assessment of what was attainable. At another point, the Commissioner stated that Providence’s original 5-year takeover timeline was actually ambitious compared to Massachusetts, which took ten years to bring significant improvements to the Commonwealth’s schools 

The Commissioner’s testimony left me wondering whether RIDE’s turnaround plan overpromised to the community about what RIDE believed a State takeover could accomplish. The transition from five years to seven years (due to COVID) to ten or twelve years (in their comparison with Massachusetts) also left me wondering whether RIDE is doing all it can to achieve the promises it made when it undertook the takeover, regardless of how realistic RIDE thought those initial promises were. For example, Slide 8 (“Excellence in Learning”) discusses the goals of increasing the length of class to a minimum of 70 minutes and adding 25% more time to reading, writing and mathematics.  Given the fixed length of the school day contained in the teachers’ contract, I do not see how these goals will be attained, particularly if the Providence Public Schools retains its commitment to the other parts of its curriculum (such as for example science, social studies, foreign languages, history, art and physical education), many of which are mandated in the State’s Basic Education Plan. As we know, the State had the opportunity to negotiate a longer school day in the contract that was signed last year, but failed to do so. We also know that the State, in a departure from prior practice in Providence and elsewhere, did not allow for public feedback concerning the terms of that contract, preventing anyone outside the negotiators from learning its terms until after the contract was finalized and unchangeable.

Following RIDE’s presentation, other witnesses offered public comments both orally and in writing. They expressed a wide range of viewpoints which are not possible to summarize here. The experience reminded me of the marathon meetings that the Providence School Board held when I served on it during 2000-02. With that said, there were two major differences. First, the Senate Oversight Committee does not have any authority to set policy for the Providence Public Schools. Second, the Oversight Committee’s hearings on the Providence Public Schools take place on a quarterly basis, rather than on the regular schedule of the Providence School Board.  As a result, the Oversight Committee hearings are, by design, only a modest mechanism for providing a forum for public engagement with the Providence Public Schools. Despite and/or because of these structural features, I believe that Monday night’s hearing reinforced my view that the State’s takeover is lacking in engagement and accountability, and that the current legislative oversight hearings, while beneficial, do not provide an adequate structure for addressing these two critical needs. Monday night’s hearing also reinforced the conclusion that the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education is unable and/or unwilling to perform these vital functions of engagement and accountability for the Providence Public Schools today, and that the Crowley Act contains gaps that need review and reform before the next State takeover occurs.

Some of Monday night’s commenters advocated for a prompt return of the Providence Public Schools to local control. I am not ready to give up on the State takeover, and I certainly do not wish for the State to give up on Providence.  Instead, I want to see the State live up to its initial promises, and to make all the necessary commitments of resources and effort to see this through successfully. I am working with my Senate colleagues to develop legislation that will at least begin to address these complex issues.   

March 13 Letter

As we continue to watch with dismay the deepening tragedy in Ukraine, and help in the limited ways we can, this week’s letter will discuss the war’s impact on the pension obligation bond proposal, while also discussing the Senate Finance Committee’s review of the implementation of the “safety net” programs enacted in January.

The Pension Obligation Bond Proposal

As you may remember from my February 6 letter, the City of Providence convened a working group (on which I served) that recommended seeking State and voter approval for the issuance of a $500 million bond to invest in the pension fund. This investment would allow the City to fund a portion of its pension obligation while mitigating the unsustainable increases looming on the current payment schedule. Last week, the City Council set Tuesday, June 7 as the date for a Providence voter referendum on whether to approve this initiative. To help voters learn about the issues, Council members Nirva LaFortune and Helen Anthony are holding a virtual town meeting on Wednesday, March 16 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. You can register for the meeting (and receive a Zoom link) by clicking here. I hope to join the meeting as well, if my Senate schedule permits. If you are unable to make this meeting, the Mayor’s office is currently planning a broader public engagement process which I hope they will announce shortly.

As addressed in the Working Group Report, a pension obligation bond can stabilize the City’s annual pension costs by borrowing money at a low, fixed interest rate and investing it to gain a higher expected rate of return. Recent market conditions caused by the war have changed both sides of the equation. On the one hand, recent declines in the stock market reduce the cost of stocks relative to earnings history. On the other hand, predicted increases in interest rates will increase the cost of the bond if it issues. The bond will not help the City’s finances unless there is a sufficient “spread” between expected cost and the expected return. Put another way, the pension obligation bond will not and/or cannot go forward unless each of the following three conditions are met: (1) Providence voter approval, (2) State approval (through the Governor and General Assembly) and (3) favorable financial conditions. The State legislation will not mandate that the City go forward with the bond; instead, it will give the City permission to issue the bond should it so choose. I have not read the language of the City referendum, but it is important that the referendum also make clear that if the voters approve the concept, the bond should not issue unless there are sufficiently favorable conditions in the financial markets. 

Mending The Social Safety Net

As I described in my January 9 letter, the General Assembly passed on January 6 authorization for the Governor’s “Rhode Island Rebounds” program to spend $113 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to address immediate needs. One of them was to provide “retention bonuses” to providers of “safety net” services, such as social workers, health care workers, and pediatricians for disadvantaged Rhode Islanders. In the months leading up to the January 6 approval, both the administration and the providers emphasized the urgency of these additional payments above and beyond established (inadequate) State reimbursement rates, as providers were leaving the field for better opportunities, creating a crisis in care for our most vulnerable. 

At last Tuesday’s hearing, the Senate Finance Committee asked the Department of Children, Youth and Families for an update on the distribution of these urgently needed retention payments, only to learn to our great disappointment that none of them had yet been disbursed, more than two months after they had been appropriated. Other social service providers testified about the number of staff that had been lost in the past two months, and who might have been retained had the Department acted more urgently. In this way, the “retention bonuses” that had been requested and funded have yet to retain anybody, to the harm of our most vulnerable Rhode Islanders. 

On the other hand, as described in my December 5 letter, the administration awarded millions of dollars of “retention bonuses” to other State employees who were not identified as being at risk of leaving, originally calling those payments “vaccination bonuses” before realizing the unfairness of giving State employees bonuses for becoming vaccinated. Since then, the list of employees who are receiving these unsolicited and unnecessary “retention bonuses” has expanded, costing the State additional millions of dollars. In this way, the current “retention bonus” program is paying money to “retain” employees who were not at imminent risk of leaving, while failing to pay those who are. The Department of Children, Youth and Families stated that the first Senate-approved retention bonus payments would go out by the end of last week.                 

February 27, 2022 Letter

This has been a difficult week, both in our community (in which a group of Nazi sympathizers tried to intimidate a meeting) and globally (with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine). In this context, the work of the Rhode Island Senate pales in significance; however, I will use this week’s letter to discuss several legislative projects I am pursuing in the area of education. I will be discussing bills I have sponsored or co-sponsored, some of which have been formally introduced onto the Senate’s docket, while others are still in the drafting stage. To understand the steps an introduced bill must complete in order to become law, please review this diagram from the Secretary of State. As it explains, a bill is just a proposal; most bills do not make it through the entire legislative process in a given year; and many bills that gain passage require more than one year to do so. As a result, introducing a bill is just the beginning, and I will be working with my colleagues to gain as much support as I can for these projects.

 

During the campaign, I explained the value of allowing the voters to decide in a referendum whether to enshrine a right to education in our State’s Constitution. Last year, the Senate approved such a resolution, but it did not pass the Rhode Island House or gain the Governor’s signature. This year, Senator Picard has re-introduced that resolution as Bill No. S-2095, and I was grateful for the opportunity to co-sponsor.

Another issue that arose during the campaign was the growth of charter schools in Providence and their impact on the Providence Public Schools. Under the “money follows the child” feature of the current funding formula, the City loses not only the associated average State aid (currently around $11,000) but also the corresponding local contribution (approximately $5,000) for each Providence student who enrolls in a charter school rather than in the Providence Public Schools. This feature harms the Providence Public Schools financially, as the loss of a single child results in only a marginal savings, which is lower than the average cost per child, stretching the budget more thinly. This problem is compounded as charter enrollments increase, leading to this year’s reduction of $18.9 million in State aid, which the Governor’s budget proposes restoring on a one-time basis. The growth of charter schools also affects the composition of the Providence Public Schools student body. The current program allows families to “opt in” to the charter school lottery, creating what economists call adverse selection, through which better informed and more motivated families (who often provide their children with greater support in school) are more likely to apply for charter school seats. 

To counteract this disparity, the Rhode Island House of Representatives last year passed a bill introduced by Representative Ajello to change the Providence charter school lottery from “opt in” to “opt out.” The bill did not become law, however, as it neither passed the Senate nor was signed by the Governor. This year, she is re-introducing that bill, and I have introduced a parallel bill, S-2177 on the Senate side. I also have introduced a second bill (which is drafted but not yet filed) with a slightly different form of charter school “opt out” lottery in which the schools have “weighted admissions” to favor students from certain disadvantaged groups. This bill is based on ideas from Senator Cano, the Chair of the Education Committee. Finally, I have co-sponsored a bill introduced (but not yet filed) by Senator Pearson, which would, following the example of Massachusetts, limit the fiscal impact of charter school enrollment on any school district by setting a cap of 22% of the budget in low-performing school districts and 9% elsewhere. Each and all of these three bills are designed, in different ways, to prevent the growth of charter schools from hollowing out the Providence Public Schools to the point where it enters a “death spiral.”

There is one other education bill I am working on that is still in its early stages, but I hope to report on it further (along with bills I am introducing on other subjects) in the coming weeks.      

February 20, 2022 Letter

I hope you have the opportunity to spend some time outdoors this long weekend as we continue our journey through winter and (hopefully) the tail end of the omicron wave of the pandemic. This week’s letter will discuss my presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee on ranked choice voting and the funding challenges the State faces amid more than a billion dollars of additional available funds.

This past Tuesday evening, the Senate Judiciary Committee allowed me time to describe the two ranked choice voting bills I submitted. The first would institute the practice beginning in 2024 in primary contests for General Assembly seats. The second would, as an alternative, establish a study commission to report on this and other alternative multi-candidate voting procedures for the Senate’s consideration early next year. To help summarize ranked-choice voting, I prepared a brief slide deck that included a sample ranked choice voting election. The Judiciary Committee asked some smart questions, but this would mark a significant change to our election procedures. They voted to take the bill under advisement for future consideration. I will be interested in learning how the House of Representatives receives ranked choice voting legislation submitted by Representative Kislak.

In meetings this past Tuesday and Thursday nights, the Senate Finance Committee reviewed several of the budget articles proposed by the Governor. As described in my January 30 letter, there are three major budgets for the State to implement this year, namely the “Traditional Budget” (which relies on revenues raised during the next fiscal year) the “ARPA Budget” (which will appropriate $1 billion in federal funds) and the “Surplus Budget” (which will allocate $612 million in State funds received in prior years but not spent). It is important to understand the difference among these budgets. Even with the Surplus Budget available to spend this year, the Traditional Budget is projected to have deficits in future years, as indicated by this chart presented by the Governor’s office. As a result, it would be prudent to use the funds available in the ARPA and Surplus Budgets on one-time expenditures, rather than use them to create commitments to future obligations when there already will be headwinds in efforts to balance those future Traditional Budgets. Thus, even with more than $1.6 billion available in one-time funds, the General Assembly has constrained resources available to deal with ongoing needs, such as the inadequacy of ongoing “safety net” expenditures described in my November 28 letter (for which the State allocated a single year “band-aid” with federal funds). 

While the Traditional Budget for next year has the benefit of greater available general revenues than last year, it also is subject to increased commitments, such as an additional $26.9 million increased annual commitment for the motor vehicle excise tax phaseout program, and a minimum of $9.1 million of general revenues to pay for the $3,000 “retention incentive” that came from the Governor’s mishandled “vaccination bonus” program described in my December 12, 2021 letter. In order to release operating funds to pay for needed initiatives from existing revenues, it therefore becomes necessary to find either (1) programs that can be cut, or (2) 1-time expenditures that can be moved from the Traditional Budget into either the ARPA Budget or the Surplus Budget. One such expenditure I have identified is $5.3 million in the Traditional Budget allocated towards a 1-time expense to upgrade the State’s programs to serve Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities as required by a consent decree issued by the federal court. This expense cannot be paid for from the ARPA Budget due to Congressional restrictions, but it can be satisfied with funds from the Surplus Budget, if the General Assembly agrees to this transfer.

While the choice of funding source for the $5.3 million portion of the consent decree is far from the most important budget decision the General Assembly will make in the coming months, this example demonstrates how the presence of more than $1.6 billion of additional funds to allocate this year from the ARPA Budget and Surplus Budget does not necessarily translate into an ability to develop or expand programs that would create an ongoing financial commitment in the Traditional Budget.

February 13, 2022 District Letter

Last Monday night, a group of us met virtually to review the Governor’s budget. You can view our discussion on YouTube by clicking on this link. I learned many things, including information about the Governor’s environmental program from our neighbor Sue AnderBois who works at the Nature Conservancy. Sue shared insight concerning concerning a $6 million line in the Governor’s budget to staff the Executive Climate Change Co-Ordinating Council (“EC4”) established to implement the zero-carbon future envisaged by the Act on Climate. On reading the Governor’s budget, I assumed this cost would be paid for with general revenue; however, I learned on Monday night that it instead would be funded through a surcharge on utility bills. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed this budget item on Tuesday night. The administration maintained that the program could be funded without a utility rate increase by redirecting funds that currently are rebated to utility shareholders as an incentive to develop energy-efficient programs. A group of environmental advocates (including the Nature Conservancy) testified in opposition, stating that while funding the EC4 was a valuable priority, the use of the shareholder rebate/incentive funds to pay for it would be represent a step backward. Through further questions and discussions, the Finance Committee was advised to ask the Public Utilities Commission its view of the benefits of the current rebate/incentive program to determine whether to change the Governor’s EC4 funding plan and, if so, where to find an alternative funding source. 

As some of you may remember, I received the Democratic Party nomination in a 5-way primary in which I received less than 32% of the vote. At the time, I noted that more than two thirds of the voters chose someone else, and that I would look into other voting methods that could result in some form of majority support for the prevailing candidate in future elections. I was particularly interested in ranked-choice voting, a version of which was used in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary this past summer. Under that system, each voter casts a ballot that states their preference of some or all of the candidates in rank order of preference. In the first round, all the “first choice” votes are counted, and the contest ends if one candidate wins a majority. If not, the “second place” votes of the candidate with the lowest total are redistributed among the other candidates to see if that creates a majority result. If not, the process repeats with the votes of the lowest remaining candidate redistributed among the others until one candidate emerges with a majority. In the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, Eric Adams received 31.6% of the first round votes from a field of thirteen, and ultimately won the primary with 50.4% of the vote. 

Ranked choice voting requires education for both voters and election officials. It encountered some implementation bumps in the road in New York City and may require an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution. With that said, Rhode Island’s “first past the post” electoral system produced weak “mandates” for Governor Lincoln Chafee in 2010 (36.1%) and Gina Raimondo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary (42.1%) with the prospect of a similarly less-than-conclusive result in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary due to the large field of candidates. 

With that in mind, I have introduced two bills this year. The first, which is largely similar to a House bill introduced by Representative Kislak, will institute ranked choice voting for General Assembly primaries only, beginning in 2024. The second bill calls for a Senate study commission to review ranked choice voting and other voting systems for multicandidate elections (such as runoff elections), submitting a report by the end of this calendar year for the next Senate session. While no alternative system is perfect, I believe we can have greater confidence in our elected officials if the prevailing candidate has the support (in some form) of a majority of voters. The Senate Judiciary Committee has placed both of these bills for consideration on its Tuesday evening calendar to be heard at the conclusion of the regular Senate meeting.