The thing about transparent government and readily accessible public data is that the population has to take sufficient interest to become informed and then to make a stand. Taking as an indication the local reaction to Tiverton Schools' failure to offer even a competitive argument for the transfer of Little Compton's high school contract from Portsmouth to Tiverton, transparency and access to data may not be the catalysts for good, efficient government that many reform groups assume them to be.
As has been widely covered, including in this space, the Little Compton school district, with no high school of its own, has spent some months deciding whether to renew its decade-long contract with Portsmouth or to send its students to either Tiverton or Middletown High School. The data that Tiverton's southern neighbor has been considering has left little doubt as to the final results.
In a direct comparison of Tiverton's and Portsmouth's offerings, the former:
- Has less than one-third of the extracurricular and athletic programs
- Has a graduation rate of 83.4% versus 86.2%
- Offers 30% fewer AP courses
- Scores seven percentage points lower in proficiency on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests (with the difference much more dramatic when it comes to math and science)
- Has more than twice the dropout rate
- And in the 2008-2009 school year issued 827 suspensions (almost one and a half per student), compared with Portsmouth's 85 (not quite one for every 10 students)
As if to leave no doubt that it preferred to lose the competition, Tiverton told Little Compton that it would need between $14,187 and $15,954 per student per year, compared with the $9,000 that Portsmouth requested, and the $9,602 that Middletown placed on the table. (Transportation, special education, and English as a second language costs are not included.) In short, Tiverton offered much less for much more, and Tiverton residents should be wondering aloud whether they're getting the same bad deal.
As it happens, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has just unveiled a new Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA) that "enables comparisons across schools and districts." While the same data has largely been available through RIDE's IN$ITE resource, the new UCOA does provide additional layers of detail.
The first detail of interest to local taxpayers, reflecting the 2009-2010 fiscal year, is that Tiverton educates its elementary through high school students at an average cost of $14,444 each. For Portsmouth, the number is $13,154. On the rare occasions that local officials discuss why that might be so, the conversation tends to sound a bit like this slice of the transcript from the January 25 Tiverton School Committee meeting:
Superintendent William Rearick: Both Portsmouth and Middletown have budgets --- Portsmouth, I believe, eight to nine million dollars more than us --- that buys you a lot of intervention. I'll talk about the CMP in Portsmouth Middle School, where every child gets an extra semester of math. That significantly is an intervention that works. You don't even see it in the budget request because we're already over the cap, and we don't have the funds. This math teacher is a drop in the bucket, this math coach, to help improve our math scores.
Committee Member Carol Herrmann: I know you've mentioned before, Bill, that Portsmouth has many more support positions, and yet, their per-student cost is lower than ours. So what costs do we have that prevent us from being able to pay for these support positions?
Rearick: I can't answer that, because I don't know their budget. I don't have a working knowledge of their budget.
[Committee Member Deborah Pallasch alluded to special needs; Herrmann alluded to out of district costs.]
Rearick: ...When we look at neighboring communities, we're not matching apples to apples, we're matching apples to oranges, so when we have that discussion on student assessments, you gotta look at what we're arming our teachers with, and our administrators with. You know, to go provide to children the education they need. We're not providing, due to the financial constraints, what we need for our teachers to push those kids forward, especially at the high school level, especially in math and science.
…You can also look at the income of families, the education of families. There's a vast disparity between Portsmouth and Tiverton.
Pallasch: One of the big things, too, is they have the technology benefits from [inaudible].
Rearick: Yes, and they have the lines outside the budget. They have 300 to 400,000 a year on average that are outside of their budget that the town feels is important to have for their schools. It's a philosophical shift.
It's typical, among public officials, to focus on others' mystery resources and sunnier demographics and to insist on the impossibility of comparison and accountability. The fact remains, though, that Tiverton pays $1,290 more per pupil. Yes, Portsmouth's budget is 33% bigger, but its student body is 46% bigger. And even if it were accurate to suggest that Portsmouth has expenses that it doesn't report to the Department of Education, its unlisted expenses would have to amount to $3.6 million, not $300,000-400,000, for the per pupil spending to match Tiverton's.
Moreover, the UCOA shows that one needn't imagine phantom revenue, because the lines in the budget show that the "philosophical shift" is reflected in how the district spends the money that it does declare. The two districts spend about the same percentages of their budgets on regular education (73% Tiverton; 72% Portsmouth) and special education (both 24%), and Tiverton throws another 1% in for vocational and technical education. The strategies for allocating those budgets makes all the difference.
Portsmouth spends an additional $119 per pupil on "teacher support," but Tiverton spends an additional $355 on "pupil support" (mainly to pay guidance counselors, nurses, and "outreach services directed toward the families of students") and "program support" (mainly "therapists, psychologists, evaluators, personal attendants and social workers"). That is, Tiverton focuses on services tangential to education.
Another difference in Portsmouth's priorities is that it shifts tasks to lower-cost personnel. The district spends $465 more, per pupil, on "instructional paraprofessionals" (uncertified educators), while Tiverton spends $581 more, per pupil, on "instructional teachers." That's surely a significant reason that Portsmouth spends $492 and $302 less, per pupil, on compensation and benefits, respectively, than Tiverton.
Additionally, more than half of the extra money that Tiverton spends on the "out-of-district obligations" that Herrmann cites goes to retiree benefits ($274 of $503, per pupil). One would be justified in suggesting to Superintendent Rearick that those savings are what "buys a lot of intervention."
Differences in curriculum spending also point to philosophical shifts. On a per-pupil basis, Portsmouth spends $279 more on mathematics, $233 more on natural sciences, and $187 more on social sciences, while Tiverton spends $993 more on "general education" and $132 more on physical education and health. Perhaps the population of the mainland town justifies its extra $206 per pupil on "industrial arts and vocational" courses and $602 on special education courses, but there's no reason it can't match Portsmouth's investment in critical subjects by trimming less essential ones. (And the fact that Portsmouth's special ed program eats up about the same percentage of its budget, while its special ed classes are less expensive, ought to justify analysis among Tiverton's administrators.)
There is some evidence for the claim that demographic distinctions between the two towns create unique challenges for Tiverton. But additional social-work activity and general education requirements don't fully account for the vast gulf between the budgeting practices of the districts. Frankly, the communities across the Sakonnet River have a great deal in common, and Tiverton officials should see it as a tremendous opportunity that they work in such proximity to one of the highest-achieving districts in the state.
They should also take the competition for Little Compton's high school students as a challenge for the next decade. Even if the gap never closes, it cannot but benefit the district's students to have administrators and teachers focused on outshining one of the state's few academic bright spots.
Indeed, Superintendent Rearick's eagerness to declare that comparison can't be made from town to town (except to facilitate excuses based on the other's advantages) is embarrassing and ought to raise suspicions about his competence to be the highest-paid employee of the more-challenging community that he insists Tiverton to be.
Unfortunately, Tiverton's School Committee as currently constituted does not appear inclined to force more thorough analyses than an online columnist can piece together on nights and weekends. Also unfortunately, the people of Tiverton --- even the parents of Tiverton students --- don't appear inclined to leverage the resources available to them in order to demand a better education system for the town's children.