School Committee candidates focus on finances
Over the past two years, the Cranston School Committee has had more of its share of time in the spotlight. Auditoriums have filled with parents and students opposing cuts to athletics and Rhode Islanders with strong views on school prayers. Committee members have been invited on talk radio and national television news programs to discuss threats to school dances.
In a word, the two-year term of its members has been challenging.
Still, three wards have no challengers. Michael Traficante moves to the citywide seat with no opponent, while Paula McFarland holds on to her Ward 3 position. Newcomer Trent Colford Sr. is filling the vacancy left in Ward 4, and also has no opponent.
For incumbents Steven Bloom, Stephanie Culhane, Janice Ruggieri and Andrea Iannazzi, however, it’s a race to Nov. 6, facing opponents Jeff Gale, Elana Carello-Rabiner, Joseph Agresti and Jay Rosenfield, respecitvely.
After his first term representing Ward 1, Steven Bloom is proud of what he has been able to accomplish in two years, including greater accountability written into the superintendent’s contract and a plan for creating and following through on a Strategic Plan.
More than anything, he is glad to see the district’s budget include a five-year outlook. With a better understanding of where they have been and where they are headed, Bloom believes the district can get its financial house in order, paying back the city and eventually reinstating programs.
That process could be sped up if Cranston schools continue to make cuts.
“There are further savings that could be realized by outsourcing transportation services,” he said, citing custodial services as another potential savings source through privatization.
These are services Bloom says the district can deliver more efficiently, allowing them to instead focus on investing in education.
“The bottom line is the district needs to be investing in the resources that are important to education,” he said. “I think we should be reinvesting in our teachers, in our administrators, in order for us to deliver the best possible education to Cranston students at the lowest cost.”
Jeff Gale came within 67 votes of his opponent in 2010, and having the same concerns two years later, he’s back in the race. Gale has 15 years of experience in education-related fields working for agencies dedicated to literacy, after-school programming and early childhood education. During his time at the Rhode Island Afterschool Alliance in particular, Gale says he got valuable policy experience that would help to serve Cranston schools.
“Parents are really concerned about their children and what kind of programs outside of the classroom they’re able to get. With after-school programs, there’s much research showing academic achievement, social and emotional growth and maturity,” he said.
A volunteer with BASICS, Gale said paying off the debt so music and enrichment programs can be reinstated would be a priority. In order to do that, he said the district must continue to bargain with unions, as cuts would be difficult to find.
“I’d have to take a good luck at the budget, but if there is any room for savings or cuts, it would be pretty lean,” he said.
Other goals for Gale include developing a plan to institute full-day kindergarten in Cranston, and better engaging parents and taxpayers through communication and transparency.
Since getting involved in Cranston schools, parent Elana Carello-Rabiner has been surprised and disappointed to see so few families getting involved in how the district is run. She says speaking at School Committee meetings can be an intimidating prospect, and she would like to find ways to alleviate the concerns of constituents and bring them back to the table.
“I often feel like the real meeting is in the executive session and then they each come out and speak a script. I think people just reject that and don’t trust it,” she said.
Carello-Rabiner is particularly concerned with the perspective of parents of children with special needs. She does not think their interests are being represented, and said she wants to “give them a voice,” starting with a full independent audit of special education.
She adds that part of getting people engaged is being open and transparent, and making sure that educators are accountable from the top down.
Carello-Rabiner is an advocate for school choice, and also supports the vision of Mayor Allan Fung, with whom she said she would be able to work well. Using that relationship as a springboard, she would like to kick-start conversations on consolidation and reduction of administration.
Rather than have a top-heavy district, Carello-Rabiner believes the most valuable resources in Cranston schools are right in the classroom. She wants to provide those resources – teachers – with the support they need to do the job effectively.
“I think we have a lot of very dedicated teachers and we have an incredible, supportive group of parents,” she said.
During her four-year tenure on the School Committee, Stephanie Culhane has faced her share of controversy, from school prayer to school dances, but she sees a light at the end of the tunnel, especially in regard to the budget.
“I am really proud of the fact that we are on a path to fiscal solvency and we are on our way to bring back the things we’ve had to cut. We’re on a path to be great again,” she said.
Culhane reminds parents and taxpayers who are disappointed to see music and EPIC still vacant from the curriculum that these programs cannot be reinstated until the district has paid off its debt to the city. The five-year outlook in this budget will help accomplish that goal, as have a series of “very difficult” decisions and cuts, she said.
Before programs are reinstated, Culhane has suggested the formation of a sub-committee to outline what the programs will look like when the money is there.
Other programs she would like to see expanded are financial literacy and technology, which she says provide students with the tools they need to be successful in life.
Looking to the future, Culhane believes that officials at the local, state and national level need to recommit to education. She says that Cranston has been underfunded in the past, and still does not receive as much money as other districts of similar size.
“I think it has to start from the top. We have to work, as a nation, to make education a priority again,” she said.
Culhane says that is true for parents and taxpayers, too. She urges Cranston residents to question what they’re told, attend meetings and get involved.
“Education is important. Parents need to be involved. Parents need to be empowered to understand that those meetings, whether it’s a PTO meeting or a School Committee meeting, is the seat of change,” she said.
Along the campaign trail and at the School Committee debate, Joseph Agresti has zeroed in on district finances as the obvious priority of the next two years.
“We have great teachers in Cranston and when elected, I plan to help dissect the budget so we can give them the tools they need,” he said. “We must have the fortitude to do more to ensure that more money goes to providing teachers the tools they need to take Cranston schools from good to great.”
Agresti says it isn’t just the administration that could benefit from a focus on finance. He believes financial literacy programs need to be improved, and suggests that life skills curriculum in vocational programs should be applied to all students.
“We need to teach our students how to manage and eliminate debt ... We shouldn’t expect our future citizens to be able to balance the city and school budgets if we don’t give them the skills to do so,” he said.
Money is tight now, but Agresti looks forward to a time when extra curricular programs, which he says are crucial to producing well-rounded individuals, can be reinstated.
If education is strong, Agresti says a strong economy will follow.
“I believe that we can better educate our students so that they can help turn the Rhode Island economy around,” he said.
Previously the Ward 4 representative for four years, Janice Ruggieri is a product of redistricting, and this year is running in Ward 5 for a third term on the Cranston School Committee. Considering her tenure, Ruggieri says the district is moving in the right direction.
“If I look back where the school department as a whole was when I came onto the committee versus where we are now, financially, I think we have stayed on course,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Ruggieri hopes that fiscal responsibility can ultimately lead to reinstating programs, and said that path is currently being forged. She hopes instituting full-day kindergarten will be part of that long-term plan.
Paying off the debt and balancing the budget, though, is not possible without continued concessions. Ruggieri says a relationship of mutual respect has helped make negotiations productive.
More savings could be realized through consolidation. She and Councilman Robert Pelletier formed a consolidation sub-committee, and Ruggieri is frustrated that no tangible progress has been made.
“I am not willing to give up consolidation. The fact is, we have duplicate departments and there are things we can be doing to consolidate,” she said, adding that savings benefit the taxpayers, regardless of whether it is the city or schools that are on the receiving end.
Ruggieri is a PTO member and sits on four different sub-committees, and hopes that as the district moves forward, more parents will consider reaching out to her and getting involved.
“Be part of the system; don’t just point out what’s wrong,” she said.
An eight-year incumbent in Ward 6, School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi is proud both of the district’s improving finances and some of the strides made in education, such as gains in writing, reading and math NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] scores in some schools.
“We’ve also been in the news for education. We’ve done some amazing things,” she said.
Reinstating programs like EPIC and music would contribute to student success, and Iannazzi is anxious to get to a point where that will be possible, once the district’s debt is paid off. She is also an advocate for full-day kindergarten and financial literacy programs to improve student achievement.
With that end in sight, Iannazzi looks to strengthen budget operations. She credits the district’s collective bargaining units, and the Cranston Teachers Alliance in particular, with helping to do just that, despite what she considers an inhospitable environment created by those who have been critical of public employees.
“I think it’s a credit really to the plan that the School Committee, the administration and the CTA share, and that’s one of openness and communication,” she said. “The primary responsibility of the Cranston School Committee is to advocate for what’s in the best interests of the students and at the lowest possible cost for the taxpayer.”
Transparency and accountability are key words in Jay Rosenfield’s campaign for School Committee. He says that parents and taxpayers will not be part of the discussion until they can trust their representatives, and that will only happen through a user-friendly website, better district-wide communication and promotion of the good news happening in Cranston schools.
“We could be doing everything right, but nobody knows about it,” he said.
He says starting the committee meetings earlier and at a set time would also increase the community presence at meetings, rather than making residents wait until executive session runs its course. Rosenfield is likewise worried about having enough books, technology and other resources available for students and teachers – an issue he says is exponentially more important than the headline-grabbing stories that have “nothing to do with education.”
When it comes to the budget, Rosenfield says no line item is exempt from examination. That includes potentially privatizing some services, but Rosenfield says that employees must always be part of the discussion.
Most important, he said, is living within the district’s means.
“I’m proposing a zero-based budget. Let’s start from scratch and justify why we’re spending. I want to get in there and take a closer look,” he said.