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Avoiding Misunderstanding of Fliers and Reserves

Thank you to the Tiverton School Committee for seeing its way clear to implement full-day kindergarten in the coming school year.  The intention of the 0.9% Budget was to control taxes while not affecting programs that are priorities for residents; that’s exactly what this outcome represents.

Thank you, as well, to Michael DeCotis and other affected parents for stepping forward.  The combination of elected officials and a democratic budget process helps to make our government truly representative, but the missing piece is the involvement of people in the community.

In the spirit of keeping the community informed, one loose end of the push for full-day kindergarten needs clarification.  At the June 9 School Committee meeting, I presented a flier suggesting that it didn’t make financial sense to cancel full-day K to save money, that the district had plenty of space in its budget, that it had plenty of reserves to make up for shortfalls, and that the town’s reserves are available to the schools in the case of emergencies.

Here is the exact language on that last point: “Town reserves cover the school department, too. The 3% reserves that the charter requires are calculated including the school budget.”

This is a basic mathematical observation.  For example, the 3% in this year’s budget was calculated from the total $48.5 million budget of the town and schools, or $1.5 million.

Nonetheless, at the Town Council’s June 22 meeting, Council President Denise DeMedeiros asked Assistant Solicitor Stephanie Federico, of Anthony DeSisto Law Associates, “If a budget was ever proposed that dropped us below the 3% of the town and counted them as the 3%, that would be an illegal budget.”  The lawyer answered, “It would be an illegal budget.”

Before the conversation was done, Council Member David Perry chimed in to say that the flier was “incorrectly printed and advertised.”  Federico’s response: “That is correct.”

My first thought was that this new information might make next year’s petitioner budget very easy.  If the official opinion of the town solicitor is that only the town is included in the calculation, then it is 3% of $19.0 million, or about $570,000.

More likely, DeMedeiros asked Federico the wrong question (either deliberately or because she didn’t understand the difference), and the lawyer didn’t make sure it reflected the language of the flier.  The question she seems to have answered was whether the town could grab money from the schools’ reserves for the 3%.  I hope the town didn’t have to pay any extra to have its lawyer answer a question with such an obvious answer.

I also hope this isn’t an indication of the new solicitor’s future performance.  Tiverton really needs a solicitor who gives the council accurate, unbiased opinions that avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary lawsuits.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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