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Transparency With No Action Won't Help Students

The unprecedented information available to Tiverton residents should prod them to demand better schools.

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 , 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.

DSilva April 01, 2011 at 10:50 PM
Justin, Again, you are talking to the wrong people. Give your leaders a chance before you "go off on them." Clearly you don't share my feelings re: talking with your town officials, but I wish you would reconsider working with your town schools instead of always against them.
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 10:51 PM
[Unfortunately, the quirks of Patch commenting appear to have cost me a response to Jim L that I cannot recover. Herewith, a shortened version:] Jim L. The youth sports are all distinct from the school district. However, research and anecdotal evidence suggests that the district starts to lose the kids in middle school; that's a common problem, though. My assessment, as a reasonably informed resident and a father, is that the real problem is inadequate preparation --- both on subject matter and on the appropriate attitude toward school --- beginning much earlier. I'm not convinced that state help is the prerequisite. Tiverton, generally, has an excellent sense of community, and yet, the Little Compton School Committee cited the high school's lack of a sense of community as a factor that singled Tiverton out in a bad way. Frankly, I think the schools are mismanaged, and the faculty (collectively) has a wholly wrong-headed approach to public school education. Yes, that has to do with unionized labor: When they're responding to low test scores with anything near the passion that I've witnessed for a 3% pay increase (on top of steps, of course), then I'll begin to change my mind.
DSilva April 01, 2011 at 10:55 PM
On a different note, you do always having very positive things to say about Portsmouth schools, which we can always use. Any though to moving on island? It really isn't that far away from everything and you can always pack a lunch for trips.
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 11:00 PM
DSilva, Sorry. They're public figures. I've attended more hours of school committee meetings than were probably worth my time. Sometimes, I've been the only person in the audience. As the above transcript makes clear, Rearick had no answers. "I can't answer that, because I don't know their budget. I don't have a working knowledge of their budget." "When we look at neighboring communities, we're not matching apples to apples," How long should I have wasted sending questions to Rearick regarding my budget comparisons only to receive excuses and double talk? More to the point of my essay, why should a struggling carpenter have to conduct preliminary research in order to get information that a six-figure superintendent ought to be providing with ease in any public forum available, including his own school-committee's meetings? Look, when it comes to civic matters, I'm extremely well informed, compared with the average. If a busy public is going to be paying so much for services, its employees should certainly take the initiative to anticipate their questions.
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 11:12 PM
j michael. The point is that a teacher's salary is enviable for more than half of the people in Rhode Island, including other teachers. Regarding the behavioral problem, I guess that depends on the private school. Of course, some teaching jobs are more difficult than others. Unfortunately, the rigid union approach to distributing pay disguises the fact that more than enough qualified candidates would gladly fill many of the positions at lower cost to the district. I'll cede that the teachers' pay may not be enviable to you, but given my own experience with teachers and (yes) teaching, I think a great number of people would disagree.
DSilva April 01, 2011 at 11:14 PM
We will agree to disagree then. I have seen first hand how busy schools are and the average person really has no idea that the Administrators have little time left in the day to "anticipate" questions from residents. Not suggesting they shouldn't be held accountable when asked directly though - because they should. Dr. Lusi has taken many unnecessary hits here so that is my only basis for comparison. Just of note though, the Uniformed Chart of Account data just came out last week. Our own School Committee hasn't even discussed it yet.
Jim L April 01, 2011 at 11:18 PM
and who ever you are? Your solution is to do?
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 11:21 PM
DSilva, I've worked with them, and still do, whenever it's feasible, given our differing priorities and beliefs. For the most part, though, I've discovered over the past couple of years, that the things that I believe to be at the core of any possible reform are off the table for them. To some extent, it's fair of me to say that I've communicated with them directly enough to have reached the point of mutual disagreement. I suspect, by the way, that you've never witnessed William Rearick roll his eyes and rub is face whenever a school committee member asks a question contrary to his stance or take on a harsh, condescending tone when addressing Town Council members whom he considers on the other side politically or bluster down the high school auditorium aisle to tower of a town resident who's asking inconvenient questions. More broadly, though, I find that public officials are more attentive to people who don't agree with them when they feel themselves to be addressing a substantial audience rather than some weird guy who goes to town meetings in his spare time.
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 11:22 PM
We moved off island when we bought a house because we just couldn't afford it. Now, we're underwater on the mortgage, so moving isn't an option. In any event, I really do like Tiverton. It's just been the victim of some very bad governance.
Jim L April 01, 2011 at 11:27 PM
d silva given that you live in portsmouth what is your interest here? and how do tyou feel about house bill 0794, while you have seen how busy portsmouth is, i have dealt with tiverton first hand , and i am not pleased with the results i see for MY money
Justin Katz April 01, 2011 at 11:30 PM
Well, we're not talking about questions about why the lockers are green (or whatever). We're talking about the question of why the more-successful district next door does specific budgetary allocations differently. With the amount of time that the school district visibly spends on strategies to soak taxpayers for a few more percent increase, I'd say it should have time to call up the neighboring superintendent for some collegial comparison of notes. Look, I'm a simple carpenter, and I've been known to lose sleep over the possibility that something I've built will sag more than a quarter of an inch over a half-century. If my buildings were visibly deficient within a year while the contractor next door was among the stars of the state, you better believe that I'd find the time to find out what they're doing differently. I'd also reiterate that the UCOA is very similar in important respects to the IN$ITE data. Moreover, Tiverton was a pilot district in forming the UCOA. In general, why can't we expect more? They work for us.
stoney larue April 01, 2011 at 11:37 PM
My solution Jim would be for you to answer the question. In my opinion the industrial park should be used for light industry and manufacturing. If we put the turbines in we will take most of the park off the roles, not to mention that where turbines go in the price often goes up to pay for the cost and maintenance. That a where will we get the money to buy build and maintain them.
j michael April 01, 2011 at 11:38 PM
Justin, Within RI, Tiverton teachers were paid less than the median at step one, and well below the median at step 10 -- not that there's great disparity. Has this changed since 2009 much? Also, I'd imagine that other teachers (from private schools or Alabama) would envy the salary of Rhode Island teachers, but we are talking about Tiverton public school teachers vs. other public school teachers in RI. I'm not a big fan of unions, but I understand their value. The reason that they're necessary is to prevent replacing teachers with longevity and experience with new teachers because they're less expensive. Corporate America has done that to workers for years, and we went along with it. Now they continue to do it but the workers are hired in different countries. Glad we can't do that with education -- yet! Why aren't YOU in teaching if the pay's so enviable and you're qualified?
Jim L April 01, 2011 at 11:39 PM
I have gone face to face with rearik and you nailed him justin, when i proved him wrong all i got was I'm the principle so to bad, how can you stop bullies when one lives at the head, of stoned and tiverton red, it's. james c lipe not no name ,not a made up name, not the guy in a blue truck with threats a name i was given to use proudly, to hold up high and share my convictions
DSilva April 01, 2011 at 11:48 PM
Jim, I read many of the articles on Patch and share my opinions accordingly. I do have relatives in Tiverton, so hear about Town happenings probably more than most here. We have experienced many of the same issues and I do see the public discouse issues there that we have here. If you feel my comments are irrelevant, please feel free to ignore them. I will do the same. But I defend my right to post on any topic, in any town, as long as this is my United States.
stoney larue April 01, 2011 at 11:53 PM
Jim what threats are you referring to? I have never even cone close to threatening you. You are the one who challenged me to a fight not the other way around. JimL why do you post on the Portsmouth Patch and what campground are you talking about and what foes Tiverton stand to gain from the Turbines.
Justin Katz April 02, 2011 at 12:53 AM
j michael, If the demographics of towns make such a big difference, why should we compare salaries? In any event, it's an old game, 'round these parts, for the unions in each town to leapfrog each other, sometimes with teachers from one town serving on the school committees of another. Slight degrees of pay difference aren't but so notable; when last I took an in-depth look, in 2008, step 10 in all but 4 districts was within $2,000 a year of the median. Perhaps Tiverton teachers had the misfortune to be ramping up for their turn at the leapfrogging just as the economy tanked. Be that as it may, Tiverton's per-pupil expenditure on personnel compensation is $492 more than Portsmouths, and $302 more on benefits. I'm curious about your faith in longevity. Not too many years ago, Middletown laid off a young teacher just after she'd been named teacher of the year for the entire state. From the district's perspective, and the students', what's so special about longevity? There are a number of directions we could go with this: Wouldn't it be better for a district to hire two fresh, excited math teachers in exchange for one old typing teacher? (Exaggerated example acknowledged.) Or would it be better for districts to have the flexibility to pay teachers according to their individual value? Ultimately, the culprit is the practice of handling teachers as if they all ought to make the same pay and that their pay ought to increase equally across the board.
j michael April 02, 2011 at 02:23 AM
Justin, Not sure what you mean by the first sentence. What's your point? The union salary tables attempt to create a fair system. Have you worked in a corporate environment? Let me tell you, it's not fair. The unfair and extremely competitive nature of the environment do not result in better products or services. In fact, it generally results in inferior products and services. Performance is often judged on perception and relationships (human nature), and not necessarily on merit. I've actually managed to play the game, at the expense of delivering greater value to my company and its clients. If the environment was not as competitive, I could actually take the appropriate time to better understand client need and not manipulate them into thinking they need more than they actually do in order expand my book of business. In essence, I'm a highly paid corporate whore, but I sure would not want this for a system that is supposed to be fairly administered.
Tiverton Dad April 02, 2011 at 01:34 PM
I realize that this column was written before before the other thread, but this is, um, the internet, and it's not hard to change things. Anyway, that's beside the point, because I wasn't accusing you of anything. As a friend of tax-paying parents who have a child who is challenged by disabilities, I can tell you that the additional services are absoultely "central", rather than "peripheral" to his education. When you boil these issues down to real people, rather than numbers, positions often change.
Tiverton Dad April 02, 2011 at 01:37 PM
2. But Justin, what is the ratio of certified to uncertified teachers in Portsmouth versus Tiverton? That's the real question. 3. All problems can be solved. IMO.
Jim L April 02, 2011 at 03:21 PM
dsilva forgive me i was not questioning your right to post here, just wanted to know interest, i think that portsmouth pays more attention to their school system I also believe alot of that is the result of dealing with miltary famillies for many yearsA certain level of conduct is expected of such children but their educaters are held to the same line.I do not think that portsmouth would put up with falling scores and massive suspecpions for 3 years, answers would be sought. Portsmouth also did away with the FTM so they do not and are not help hostage by 1/4 of the town decideing the budgetI don't know if you knew. but you can be removed or striped of rank punished in the navy for not handleing your finanical affairs ,Plus your townhas much more bussiness than us, hopefully this sight will kick start us
Tom April 02, 2011 at 08:01 PM
If you actually look at the report you will see that the actual suspensions are 175 which is less than Middletown and more than Portsmouth. But I find it more curious that Middletown and Portsmouth have not reported their in house suspensions or detention while Tiverton has. EVEN more curious is that other districts in RI do report these numbers. The question everyone in the EAST BAY should be asking is how come Portsmouth and Middletown don't have internal discipline reported? If one were to take the time to look at the report they would see that examples of offenses listed for in house suspension or detention would be cutting class, tardiness, or smoking on school grounds, to name a few. Isn't anyone curious as to why nobody seems to be getting disciplined for these offenses in Middletown or Portsmouth? Am I to believe that no students in Middletown or Portsmouth have been caught smoking on schools grounds, or they have never been late for class, or even cut a class? Here is the link to verify Tiverton's numbers: http://infoworks.ride.ri.gov/school/tiverton-high-school People should really do their own fact checking before making assumptions. I like to check and recheck before I state my opinion on a blog or in my weekly column. In my family we detest the word liar. So in our family we use the phrase "mahogany". If someone is not telling the truth we just say mahogany and everyone in the family knows. Jim, Justin MAHOGANY!
Justin Katz April 02, 2011 at 08:18 PM
That's an interesting definition of lying that you have in your household: Correctly citing information provided by the statewide organization that collects the data. One might call such a definition dishonest. Even if there is error on that number, though, it seems an odd one on which to focus, and frankly, I wouldn't have included it except that my purpose was to convey the statistics that the Little Compton School Committee considered when choosing a high school for its students. 827 is what's reported by the state, and it's what Little Compton considered. If it's wrong, I'd encourage the Tiverton administration to set to work correcting it.
stoney larue April 02, 2011 at 08:33 PM
Once again JimL what failing scores do you refer to?As for you muddled assertion that the Navy families somehow lead to schools with better discipline I can only say HUH. Rogers High School, for many years had the bulk of the Navy families and both towns barely have any at this time. How did the Navy hold the educators to the same line. For much of its history Portsmouth was the smallest town and school system and a farming community.What influence did the Navy have on the schools. Please note JIML there is no threatening language or anything of that sort. Just some question about your continued distortion(spin.BS) about falling test scores. I guess you assume that if you repeat the lie often enough people will think it the truth.
Tom April 02, 2011 at 08:45 PM
One would think that the Little Compton Schools and more importantly you would make sure the statistics are correct. You began your article by stating: "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" part of becoming informed is making sure the data by which you draw conclusions is correct AND that you understand the definitions or parameters by which you quote the data. Had you taken the time to find out what an in house suspension is, I would like to think, that you probably would have looked into why Middletown and Portsmouth didn't have any. It sounds far fetched that both of those schools didn't have a single infraction in the other two categories. I would like to suggest that if you are writing a column, opinion or not, that you have an obligation to make sure when you quote a statistic that you might want to make sure the statistics are correct and not just assume so. Are the readers of you column to assume that we need to double check everything you say? You indicate that we should be proding for better schools I am merely proding for better research on the part of contributors to the Tiverton.Patch. I will continue in a moment. . . .
Tom April 02, 2011 at 08:49 PM
Based on you previous columns and statements you seem to contradict yourself with regard to your participation in the public process. In Tiverton you show up the meetings and blog and comment with suspicion as to the Tiverton school committees motives. But the Little Compton school committee quotes a statistic and you don't even take the time to research their statements. This is troubling and not good journalism whether it is or isn't an opinion article.
Justin Katz April 02, 2011 at 09:09 PM
Again, of all of the data reproduced in this column, this is of least concern to me. But putting that aside, these exact numbers were reported in a Patch news story and in a Sakonnet Times news story, were reviewed by the Little Compton school committee, with which the Tiverton administration was in communication during the decision process, and appear on the state department of education transparency Web site. The statistic IS correct by the methodology of the reporting agency. If the topic interests you to such a degree, I'd suggest that you do the further research and write to all of the people and organizations that have reported this number.
Tiverton_Red April 03, 2011 at 02:33 PM
"The fact remains that Tiverton spends more per student to get lower results. Something would seem to need readjustment." Nothing like cherry picking selective data to support the TCC's anti-public education agenda. If one were objective about the data one would see that historically Tiverton has provided lower than average per-pupil support and has attained better than average results. Nothing in this data indicates that has changed. I call that a pretty good value. Is there room for improvement, sure but don't that get in the way of the TCC (22% tax increase!) propaganda machine. Now excuse me while I prepare for tomorrow's hearing where the TCC will attempt to take more of our rights away by attempting to limit the authority of the FTM?
Jim L April 03, 2011 at 04:07 PM
i didn't lie tom, unlike you i checked the facts as reported, you would have thought that someone in the supers office would have checked them wouldn't.I believe also any ceo of any company would have seen those numbers and would have been on the horn looking fot an explation, being a stockholder in the school system i asked, and go look at all the reports someplace on here there were reports from 2010,last report i saw from shool system hose were left off
Tom April 04, 2011 at 12:57 AM
The drop out and graduation rate are more of a reflection on our community than the responsibility of the school system. I have heard the arguments about children that come from a household with a higher education are more likely to go to college and all that goes with it. It really doesn't matter what your educational background, the completion of high school is a parents responsibility. An education is a family value and I hold myself responsible for my kids education not the schools. It is my responsibility to make sure they graduate not the teachers, not the administration, and not the school com. Unless of course you are advocating for more government intervention? I am sure it is more convenient to blame the schools with this statistic. I thought by bringing forward the point that you and the Patch have reported this information without checking it first would have prompted you to look into it further. This is poor journalism by any standard and certainly reduces your credibility in analyzing any of the other data presented. Could you please explain how you can claim that: "The statistic IS correct by the methodology of the reporting agency." These are state numbers. The same state that underestimated the unfunded pension liability. Lastly, I said that it was questionable that Tiverton has discipline for cutting class and tardiness and the two other high schools in this region have not had to discipline at least one student for cutting class?

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