February 19, 2023 Letter

Dear Neighbors:

I hope you can find the time to celebrate President’s Day during this odd winter we are having. This week’s letter will discuss legislation to extend the permitted service of retired educators and an upcoming study commission to review alternatives to plurality voting systems.

1.     The Teacher Shortage Crisis

Many Rhode Island school districts face a shortage of classroom teachers this year. (Providence’s shortage is particularly acute, due to the excessive departure of teachers since the State takeover began.) School districts responded by bringing back retired teachers receiving pensions, paying them a per diem stipend above and beyond their pension benefit. In order to protect the integrity of the teacher pension system, Rhode Island law limits the service of previously retired teachers to 90 days per school year. During the current year, many retired teachers began serving on the first day of school, and they are fast approaching the 90-day limit without any roster of qualified teachers to step in when that limit is reached. This presents an urgent problem that cannot wait until later in the legislative session.

In response, Senator Britto filed a bill the Senate Finance Committee reviewed this past Tuesday to extend that limit to 120 days. The Committee also reviewed a bill sponsored by Senator Valverde that would allow school districts to waive the 90-day requirement for all educators for a period of two years. The 120-day bill would limit the impact on the pension system, but we discussed the fact that it is unlikely that school districts will find replacement teachers when the 120-day interval expires, which may result in the need for further legislation on an urgent basis in around a month. 

In the meantime, the House of Representatives passed a 120-day bill, which the Senate will take up following next week’s school and General Assembly recess. It is my hope that the General Assembly passes, as soon as possible, a bill that waives the 90-day limit entirely for the current school year and possibly next year, and at the same time takes further action to address the long-term teacher shortage. For example, at Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, the President of Rhode Island College testified that in a typical year 70% of the graduating teachers choose to remain in Rhode Island to begin their careers. When I asked him how we could increase that retention ratio, he recommended new programs in loan forgiveness and housing incentives that, over time, would increase our “home grown” supply of teachers to mitigate the shortages we currently face.

2.     The Alternative Voting Systems Study Commission

In 2021, five Democratic candidates ran for the right to represent our Senate district. I won the primary with a scant 31.2% of the vote, meaning that more than two-thirds of the voters supported someone else. This led supporters of the other candidates to question whether my candidacy best represented the will of the voters. This problem can arise in any multi-candidate election decided by a bare plurality, such as last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in which Governor McKee was selected with a 32.8% plurality, and in general elections in the past with three or more candidates. Results such as these diverge from the core democratic norm of majority rule.

In response to this problem, other jurisdictions have developed alternative voting procedures that can produce results that feature a form of majority rule, through such programs as runoff elections, “instant runoff” or ranked choice elections, or some combination of these and other alternatives. Last year, the Senate authorized the formation of a study commission to review alternatives to pure plurality elections. That commission will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, March 1 at 2:00 p.m. in State House Room 313. It is my hope that future Commission meetings will take place at a more convenient time for public view and participation, which should be possible as more State House hearing rooms become available later in March. The Commission will hold hearings over the next three months, producing a report this fall to submit to the Senate for its consideration in next year’s legislative session. 

Because the General Assembly is not in session next week, I will not send a letter next Sunday, but I plan to resume on Sunday, March 5.