Johnston’s Town Charter under review

Will Johnston’s governing document change drastically? Will voters lose the right to elect a School Committee?

Posted 12/7/23

Johnston’s Charter Review Commission (JCRC) has convened twice and plans to meet again Thursday evening, Dec. 7.

Will the JCRC ultimately ask voters to surrender their democratically elected School Committee in lieu of an appointed board?

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Johnston’s Town Charter under review

Will Johnston’s governing document change drastically? Will voters lose the right to elect a School Committee?


Johnston’s Charter Review Commission (JCRC) has convened twice and plans to meet again Thursday evening, Dec. 7.

Will the JCRC ultimately ask voters to surrender their democratically elected School Committee in lieu of an appointed board?

“The school committee doesn’t have the ability to raise revenue,” replied Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., when asked earlier this week if he had “communicated (to any JCRC members), in any way beyond social media, (his) hopes/plans to change the (School Committee) from an elected to an appointed body.”

“The current process is the town funds the school department with no say on how the funds are spent,” Polisena answered without offering a “yes” or “no” to the question. “Moreover, if the school department is dissatisfied with the amount of money given, they can file a legal action against their own town and force the town to raise property taxes. It doesn’t work that way for any other town service such as police, fire or public works.”

Target: School Takeover

Earlier this year, Polisena set his sights on a financial takeover of the town’s school system. The town hired former Cranston mayor and unsuccessful Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate attorney Allan W. Fung, a partner with Johnston firm Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara, for $275 an hour.

Fung has also been named “joint spokesperson” and “attorney” for the JCRC. He attended the first two meetings on Nov. 15 and Nov. 27. Fung said his “rate for this engagement is $225 per hour.”

“Therefore, either the General Assembly gives school committees their own taxing authority and they’re removed from the town budget entirely,” Polisena argued. “Or they continue to remain as half of the municipal budget and (the) town has at least some representation on the school committee, the entity it funds.”

Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti said he trusts the 13 members of the JCRC will act in the town’s best interests.

“The Charter Review Committee is made up of 13 Johnston residents that have resided in the Town for years and have the best interest of the Town at heart,” Civetti said. “I am optimistic that this committee will do a thorough job and present recommendations of significance that will then be subject to the final review and approval of the taxpayers.”

​The JCRC members were appointed by Town Council, the mayor’s office and the School Committee. It now includes Chairman Richard DelFino Jr., Vice-Chairman Fredrick Iafrate, Nicole Corbin, Steven Mandarelli, (Zoning Board member) Charles I. Ainabe, (School Committee member) Susan Mansolillo, Joseph Andriole, Robert Piscione, Ronald Bianchi, Taylor Russo, Karen Clark, Randy Urena and Arnold Vecchione.

“I hope that the Committee will review the Charter in detail and make recommendations to update things that need to be updated due to the passage of time etc.,” Civetti said. “I am optimistic that this committee will make recommendations that increase transparency and accountability in government.”


Rumor or Inevitable?

The Johnston Sun Rise asked the same questions of all the major players involved in the JCRC.

“I have answered this honestly before,” said Mansolillo. “I have heard the same rumor.”

The notion’s not necessarily a rumor, since the mayor has not denied endorsement of the idea (and instead, has offered reasonably thought-out arguments for an appointed School Committee over an elected board). And in an online post last summer, Polisena voiced his support for the idea.

On Aug. 8, following a journalist’s link to a story about Pawtucket’s consideration of scrapping its elected school committee (the story’s headline asked whether the move could be considered “political retribution”), Polisena posed a question: “How is it political retribution if voters approve changes?”

“Schools get majority funding from local municipalities, yet munis have no say in how it’s spent,” Polisena posted on Twitter (now known as “X”). “Schools can also go over budget and municipalities are forced to pick up the debt. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

“Elected school committee members represent the people from the district,” Mansolillo said in June after a school committee meeting. “Appointed school committee members do the mayor’s bidding. That’s just how I feel. We’re here to represent the people and do what’s best for the children.”

The town’s at-large member, Vecchione, also supported the idea in an online post.

“School Committees have zero financial responsibility, how many Town departments can over spend every year any continue to exist without consequences?” Vecchione replied to the mayor’s post on Aug. 9.

Over the summer the Sun Rise asked Polisena if he supported a major switch in Johnston’s process of school governance.

“I don’t have the power to propose or institute this, it must be approved by the voters,” Polisena wrote. “However, I think every municipality needs to have some say in their own school districts, as the municipality provides the school department the majority of its funding with municipal property taxes.”

Seeking Financial Transparency

Civetti has asked Polisena’s administration to adhere to the current Town Charter’s requirements for financial disclosure and public discussion. He hopes the financial rules are ultimately strengthened by the JCRC.

“The Charter currently requires financial information and budget information to be presented to the Town Council on a set time table,” Civetti explained. “Unfortunately the past two administrations have ignored these Charter requirements and therefore the Council is pressured into approving a budget that has not been properly (vetted) in public workshops.”

Polisena has rejected the budget schedule dictated by the Town Charter, calling it outdated.

“I hope that these provisions will not be changed rather they will be reinforced so that the Town Council, School Committee, and the general public will have an opportunity to review and discuss the proposed budgets with department directors and the administration,” Civetti said. “I also look forward to having the Town’s Finance Director present financial statements (budget vs actual comparisons) to the Town Council on a periodic basis.”

As the town scrutinizes school finances, Civetti has called for a closer examination of the town budget.

“We recently heard from the PFM consultants who stated that the School Committee should be getting financial information monthly so they can be kept up to date and able to make informed decisions,” Civetti said. “Well in my seven years on the Town Council we have never received a budget vs actual comparison statement from the Finance Director during the fiscal year.”

Public updates on town finances have become increasingly rare, according to Civetti.

“Financial information simply is not provide(d) to the Town Council and for the past two years the auditors have not even presented the annual audit to the Town Council,” Civetti said. “For as far back as I can remember the annual audited financial statements and management comments and recommendation letter were always presented to the Town Council by the auditors and approved/accepted by the Council vote. This did not take place for the fiscal 2021 or fiscal 2022 audits.  The financial information of the Town is becoming less and less transparent.”

School Committee Support?

Only sitting school committee members, namely Mansolillo and Chairman Robert LaFazia, have spoken out against changing to an appointed, rather than elected, board.

“I sit on the Charter Review Commission,” Mansolillo insists. “I would oppose this and I don’t believe the townspeople would want to see this change. The meetings are open to the public … I can’t speak for my colleagues but they might feel the same as I do.”

It remains to be seen whether anyone else on the JCRC, besides Mansolillo, supports maintaining an elected school committee.

The public has yet to weigh in on the process. The meetings have been quick and quiet, though the JCRC meeting minutes have been uploaded to the town’s website promptly following meetings.

Mansolillo will not be attending this Thursday’s meeting. The commission plans to review Articles 1 and 2 of Johnston’s Town Charter.

On Nov. 27, the JCRC named a pair of spokesmen as “point(s) of contact for inquiries received by the board in order to keep communications orderly.” DelFino and Fung were unanimously named “spokespeople.”

DelFino, the former chairman of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee and current Executive Director of the Johnston Senior Center, said he begins the process with a clear conscience and an open mind.

“No directives from the Mayor to me other than to provide a completely transparent, inclusive process and the goal would be to get the recommendations to the Council for their consideration, so that recommendations could be presented to the voters next November,” DelFino wrote via email, when asked if he had received any JCRC goals or instructions from the mayor. “No discussion regarding the School Committee.”

One thing’s certain regarding DelFino’s appointment: he knows how to get out the vote. Nearly three-quarters of Johnston’s registered voters turned out for Polisena Jr. in 2022 (DelFino’s last election as JDTC chairman and Polisena’s first mayoral bid to succeed his father who held the office for 16 years).

On Election Night, Mayor-elect Polisena Jr. declared his 68.9% vote-share a “mandate.” More than a year later, Polisena argued his influence on the JCRC will be visible throughout the process.

“I have one appointment to the commission and any recommendations I have, I will give to her,” Polisena wrote. He appointed Taylor Russo to the JCRC.

Will the commission take an appointed School Committee to Johnston’s voters “next November”?

“I’m not sure what the commission is going to propose,” Polisena replied. “I don’t know about the timeline. You would have to ask the commission that question.”

Fung also replied to a list of questions regarding the potential move away from an elected school committee and the mayor’s potential influence on the process.

“The mayor, as well as all other public officials, will be invited to speak at each respective meeting on the charter provisions that the members will be reviewing on that agenda,” according to Fung. “To date, the commission has not received anything from the mayor or any other elected officials.”

So far, the school committee switch has yet to surface during the meetings, according to the minutes, Fung and DelFino.

Following a request for comment, Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. seemed to support maintaining an elected board.

“Since the school committee represents the residents and their children, I believe that they should have a say in who represents them through their vote,” DiLullo replied when asked his opinion on the potential shift.

Civetti backs school committee elections, but echoed some of the mayor’s concerns regarding tax assessments for education funding.

“Regarding changing the school committee from an elected position to an appointed position, I am all in favor of maintaining our current system of having the School Committee Elected by the  taxpayers,” Civetti explained. “However, I would also like to see legislative changes across the state that would make school committees responsible for assessing their own taxes. The cities and towns could continue to conduct the duties of tax collector and tax assessor.  However, the School Committee would be responsible for setting the tax rate to support the School Department and the budgets which they approve and oversee.”

Civetti recalled discussing “control over … school department budgets and expenditures” with various municipal mayors, administrators, and town managers over his 34-year career working in public accounting.

“Although the city or town sets the tax rate and appropriates the funding to the school department, the city and town has no say in how those funds are spent,” Civetti said. “If the school committee sets their own tax rate there may be an increased level of accountability to the taxpayers. Although, I do recognize that when a local community level-funds a school department for a number of years, then it is very difficult for the school committee and school officials to make ends meet while still providing the best education for our children.”

The Next Meeting

The public and town officials have been invited to join the process.

“The past two commission meetings have focused on election of officers and discussions of rules/procedures for the orderly receipt of comments from the public,” according to Fung. “The commission has not had any discussions about switching to an appointed school committee or any other substantive discussions about the various charter provisions.”

Johnston Town Clerk Vincent P. Baccari Jr. distributed a mass email to the town’s elected officials.

“Hello, the charter review process has begun,” Baccari wrote. “As you all may be aware, The Commission has been appointed and tasked with holding meetings and accepting comment from public officials and the general public to send amendment recommendations to the Town Council for consideration of placing proposed amendments before the voters of the Town for approval.”

Click here for JCRC agendas and minutes.

“The Commission welcomes everyone to attend the meetings in person or submit written comments/recommendations regarding edits to the charter to the Commission for discussion,” Baccari wrote. “Any written requests or comments can be directed to me at this e-mail address (vbaccari@johnston-ri.us). All meetings of the commission are open to the public.”

The next JCRC meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Johnston Senior Center.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here