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Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Suburbs Challenge School Funding Formula in R.I.

Suburbs Challenge School Funding Formula in R.I.

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For the second time this decade, Rhode Island has been called to court to defend the way it dispenses school aid. But this time around, the challenge has come from a very different set of litigants.

Most of the 12 municipalities and school districts that last month filed a lawsuit challenging the Ocean State's school finance system are neither among the state's poorest nor its most urban.

Instead, middle-income, suburban cities and towns are arguing that the state's attempts to resolve funding inequities across Rhode Island have left them shouldering an unfair tax burden.

Because urban districts have received substantially larger boosts in state aid in recent years, the suit argues, suburban communities have had to pay an increasingly larger share of their school budgets.

As a result, many of the communities that launched the current suit have had to divert larger shares of their municipal budgets to education, said James P. Marusak, the coordinating counsel for the plaintiffs and the town solicitor of Exeter, one of the litigants.

For example, the town of Johnston, another plaintiff in the case, spends 53 percent of its local budget on education, compared with 39 percent in Pawtucket, one of the state's poorest cities.

"Many of these suburban communities are at the breaking point," Mr. Marusak said.

"We understand that the urban centers need some special attention, but there are also some issues of fiscal management that should be taken into account. We do without a certain amount of services in our town simply because we spend so much on education."

Fair or Equal?

The Rhode Island Constitution, the lawsuit points out, stipulates that "the burdens of the state ought to be fairly distributed among its citizens." But the method the state uses to distribute school aid has "no rational or consistent basis," and instead reflects "the political and social pressures of the waning days of the legislative session," the suit contends.

Filed in the Providence superior court, the challenge asks that state lawmakers be ordered to design a new funding mechanism that enables the plaintiffs to share the burden of financing education "on a fair and equal basis with other municipalities and towns."

But state education officials and other policymakers, who planned to meet late last week to draft an official response to the lawsuit, are sending the message that "fair" does not necessarily mean "equal." Rhode Island has intentionally raised its aid to urban systems faster than for other districts because they serve greater numbers of poor and otherwise disadvantaged students, said Peter J. McWalters, the state education commissioner.

"We are going to have to respond to differentiated needs with differentiated treatments," he said last week.

Legal Precedents

Much of the current funding formula was instituted following an earlier lawsuit, in which three urban districts argued that they had been denied adequate state aid. Part of the problem, they argued, was that property taxes paid for more than half of what was spent on K-12 education in Rhode Island, allowing more affluent communities to outspend substantially their urban counterparts. ("R.I. School-Finance Formula Is Upheld," Aug. 2, 1995.)

Although the state supreme court ruled against those districts in 1995, the legislature began making efforts to equalize funding across the state.

"Everyone's getting more," Mr. McWalters said. "But obviously, the suburbs are getting less more."

Still, the state pays only about 47 percent of K-12 costs in Rhode Island, despite promises several years ago that the proportion would reach 60 percent.

Commissioner McWalters said he doubted that the new lawsuit would prevail, especially in light of the 1995 supreme court ruling.

In that case, the justices decided it was up to the legislature—not the courts—to settle school finance issues. But Mr. McWalters does worry, he said, that the challenge could encourage the legislature to revise the funding method in favor of the suburban systems, at the expense of the urban ones.

"My biggest concern is that we will not advance the collective good," the commissioner said, "and the idea that other people's children are important to me and to the viability of the state's overall economy."

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 27

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