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R.I. Governor Proposes Creating 6 Regional Districts

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Gov. Bruce Sundlun of Rhode Island has proposed a major regionalization plan that would reduce the number of school districts in the state from 37 to no more than 6.

In a state where the tradition of home rule is strong, the initiative is expected to generate intense debate.

"We don't need, and can no longer afford, 37 separate school districts," Mr. Sundlun said in announcing his proposal this month. "Our old system is expensive and unproductive."

Although specifics have not been worked out, the plan calls for centralizing business functions within each of the newly formed regions, initiating school-based management, and redesigning education funding.

To craft his "21st-century education" package, the Governor has established an 18-member panel that includes lawmakers, educators, parents, and business leaders.

Representatives of major state education groups said last week that they did not object to efforts to consolidate school functions. But they voiced concern that the issues facing the commission, such as the drawing of boundaries, have already been decided and that the panel itself will serve merely as a rubber stamp for the Governor's wishes.

There is widespread speculation, for example, that Providence--by far the largest district in the state--will stand alone under the new system.

But Elizabeth H. Roberts, Mr. Sundlun's education-policy analyst, insisted that those decisions will be left to the commission.

Under the timetable set up by the Governor, the commission will have to act swiftly. The plan is to be presented to the state board of regents by Dec. 1, to the Governor by Jan. 1, 1992, and to the legislature by Feb. 1.

Take It or Leave It?

Mr. Sundlun's strategy provides that the legislature either accept or reject the plan, but not amend it. If lawmakers have not acted by Feb. 28, the plan would take effect automatically and regionalization would be phased in beginning July 1.

But a key lawmaker said last week that the legislature is unlikely to give up its say in the plan's details.

Representative Frank J. Fiorenzano, chairman of the House education committee, said that, while discussion of regionalization is warranted, the legislature will fight any efforts to prevent its input.

"No Governor or anyone else is going to tell me, 'Take it or leave it,' if I have something to add," he said.

The consolidation proposal represents, in large measure, a response to the state's financial plight. In his 1992 budget, Mr. Sundlun called for cutting state aid to K-12 education by $55 million--a decrease of 18.5 percent. If approved, the state share of K-12 funding would fall to 38 percent from 50 percent this year.

The state education department estimates that consolidation would save $30 million a year. Ms. Roberts said the intent is to channel most of the money back into education.

But some educators are skeptical of the amount that can be saved. Harvey B. Press, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said even firing all 37 superintendents would save only $2.4 million. "The numbers don't jibe," said Mr. Press, who is also a member of the commission.

Mr. Press said his major concern, however, is that the measure ignores educational quality. "How is it going to improve education for children?" he asked.

Educators also have questioned the social effects of the plan, particularly as it relates to equity and diversity.

To alleviate some of Providence's urban problems, Mr. Fiorenzano would like the plan either to combine it with several other districts or provide it with additional funding.

The Problem of Providence

Previous attempts at consolidation, observers suggested, have failed at least in part due to the possibility of alignment with Providence. That "may have been one of the reasons we were left as a district unto ourselves," said Arthur M. Zarrella, assistant superintendent for secondary education/deputy.

Mr. Zarrella added, however, that some of the city's problems are spilling over into contiguous districts. "The jury might still be out on what the benefits might be," he said.

The biggest obstacle facing the plan, analysts predict, will be the reluctance of local school boards and communities to forfeit control.

"We are not opposed to regionalization or consolidation; we feel that it may have merit for some situations, for some districts," said M. Richard Scherza, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. "However, we do have a problem with forced regionalization that takes away the representative voices of the people in the various communities."

But Ms. Roberts noted that a cornerstone of the Governor's plan is school-based management, which she said will offer even closer local control of such functions as personnel and instructional delivery.

Walter Turner, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that his studies of consolidation efforts in other states showed that, "Any time you force people to do something, and there is no incentive, there is a lot of bloodletting."

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