fair warning: The Arts Room strives to remain non-political in our support of the arts in our public schools and our community, but I attended the Joint Finance Committee meeting last night so this post may get a bit political…
A few weeks ago The Arts Room published a post that wondered what the impact would be if a particular piece of information was presented visually. The idea for this post came up after I learned something about the town of Bristol at a special meeting of the School Committee held at the end of January 2011, and it was inspired by the work being presented on the website, Information is Beautiful. The post is called ‘Beautiful Impact’ and included a graphic representation of the percent of revenue invested in education by town in Rhode Island, created using data published by the State of Rhode Island on the Municipal Finance website, from the municipal budget survey for Fiscal Year 2010. You can read the original post here.
Last night at the Joint Finance Committee meeting, David Barboza, who is the chairperson of the committee, spoke about how upset he felt by public sentiment that the town of Bristol hasn’t been adequately funding education. He said he has been hearing things around town and receiving emails to that effect, but I don’t know if he was referring to the ‘Beautiful Impact’ graph in particular. He presented his own series of slides (that were not very impressive, visually) showing the calendar year and the corresponding percent of the Bristol property tax dollar allocated to education, illustrating that the allotment currently stands at 51%. And then he wondered aloud how anyone could consider that less than adequate. (I can, when you review the state data and notice that the average percentage of revenue devoted to education by RI cities and towns is 60%.)
But then later in the evening during the School District’s presentation of the budget request, Superintendent Melinda Thies included a similar graph, comparing the percentages of local, state, and federal revenue invested in education by town in Rhode Island:
I noticed right away that when presented this way, the hierarchy of towns does indeed shift, but Bristol and Warren still remain near the bottom, but almost immediately David Barboza interrupted her presentation and launched into a blustery rant about the graph, calling it misleading and false. Mrs. Thies calmly explained that the graph was created using up-to-the-minute data provided by the State of Rhode Island to our school district office, but Mr. Barboza still dismissed it. Mary Parella also questioned the validity of the graph, saying she was suspicious that certain towns would be depicted so high up on the list, and Bristol so low, although on what she was basing her suspicions was not clear.
I guess I’m not surprised that they would try to find fault with the data rather than acknowledge it, but still it was disappointing to see some members of the Joint Finance Committee shouting “nuh-uh!” like little children. I guess I had hoped they would acknowledge that we have reached a point in time when Bristol will have to contribute more to education, now that we are on the receiving end of a drastic cut in State aid.
David Barboza certainly spoke the most, but once more Joint Finance members starting talking, you could start to see the mixed bag of opinions held across the committee. I walked away from the meeting with the impression that more than one Joint Finance member understands the dire financial situation the school district will be in if the towns don’t step up to fill the void. Ken Marshall and Diane Mederos, in particular, commented in a reasonable and intelligent manner during the 3-hour meeting. I thought it was a shame to see Mary Parella bring up the dubious concern that someone “out there” would try to frame the possibility of raising the tax rate as a battle pitting the elderly against families with young children, because by bringing it up, she becomes the person framing it that way. Cathy Tattrie seemed to have entirely missed the point of the district’s presentation when she suggested that the school department always looks to cut programs first – in fact the district clearly showed they’ve been paring down everything else as much as they can over the past five years, and now they’ve reached the point where they’ll have to look at cutting programs, if cuts are made necessary. And Halsey Herreshoff revealed himself to be so far behind the times when he commented that this might be a good opportunity to cut some programs that ‘don’t really matter’ – which makes me wonder if he has any idea what sort of creative skills our children will need in order to lead successful lives in the 21st-century.
But I was so proud of our townspeople, the parents and grandparents and teachers and school leaders and students, for showing up to support our school district – and for correcting the misinformation floated by certain JFC members with the truth, and for stomping out the fear-mongering tactics attempted by some JFC members, and for answering every suggestion that times-are-tough-so-there’s-nothing-we-can-do with valid suggestions and hard facts.
stay tuned for more in “JFC drama, part 2”!