New Law Allows Donations for Struggling R.I. Schools

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Barbara Manni thought she had a simple solution when the cash-strapped Cranston school system cut her daughter's middle school basketball and softball teams last year: raise the funding herself.

School officials quickly pointed out an obstacle. Nothing in Rhode Island law allowed the school system to accept donations earmarked for specific purposes, like saving an athletic team.

Now, in a sign pointing to the depth of Rhode Island's recession, lawmakers have approved a new law which allows donors to specify to schools how their gifts will be used, a protection supporters hope will encourage private philanthropists to save endangered sports programs and academic frills that cash-strapped towns cannot afford.

"I feel that the athletics are very important to children of this age group for many reasons," said Manni, who now plans to contact parents to help raise some of the $140,000 necessary to save the athletic program. "It just teaches them, it gives them a lot of self-confidence, it teaches them discipline."

Prior to the new law, donations were supposed to be sent into a local government's general fund, meaning town authorities could technically spend the money against the wishes of the donor. But as the economy tanked, school officials and parents pressured lawmakers to change the system.

The troubles in Cranston, a working-class suburb of about 80,000 people south of Providence, illustrate the difficulties many local systems are having as unemployment in the state surpasses 12 percent, home prices tumble and income from property tax — the main source of revenue for local governments — dries up. Rhode Island's state government, which faces its own budget deficits, has cut back on cash support to cities and towns.

In response, Cranston has laid off about a dozen teachers, support staff and administrators, sought $2 million in concessions from its employees and eliminated its middle school sports program.

"I was very upset because I was going to lose something I love to do," said 13-year-old Cassie Manni, who played softball and basketball at Western Hills Middle School in Cranston until the budget cuts came last year. "A lot of kids love to play sports, and I think a lot of their parents would help."

The new law is supposed to provide donors with assurances that their money will be used as intended. It requires any gifts to be deposited into a special bank account, instead of a school's general fund, to make oversight easier. School districts would be responsible for tracking any equipment donated from the time it arrives to the time it's disposed of.

It also bans local governments from reducing a school system's budget as the result of any grants or gifts, a likely temptation when several towns in Rhode Island have struggled to make payroll.

"The recession certainly was one of the motivating forces behind this legislation," said Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston. "This gives communities and parents another tool to utilize in trying to preserve programs that could potentially be compromised."

The issue first arose in 2007 when parents in Coventry wanted to raise money to save junior varsity sports. Lawmakers gave the town permission to accept donations, then allowed Woonsocket to accept similar gifts the following year. This year, lawmakers decided all schools can participate.

Facing a budget deficit, North Smithfield's school district has cut middle school sports and junior varsity teams from its budget. School authorities are now debating whether a combination of player fees and private donations could keep those teams on the field.

An East Greenwich resident is trying to raise money to restore an academic enrichment program for students that once sponsored mock trials and allowed children to simulate running a business. The teacher in charge of the program was laid off, said Jean Ann Guliano, chairwoman of the East Greenwich school committee.

School officials in East Greenwich are still debating the limits on private money in public education.

While Guliano said she believes the town should gladly accept donations to upgrade classroom equipment or even fund academic beyond the normal curriculum, she would oppose paying teachers in core subjects with private money.

"We are responsible for providing that," she said. "It's our obligation as a school committee."

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