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Last month, many residents of Cranston received an anonymous recorded call with a message delivered by an authoritative-sounding male voice warning:
"Parents, teachers, students and taxpayers. On Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 5 p.m. in front of the Cranston City Hall there will be a rally to save Cranston's award-winning school district. Mayor Fung wants to punish our children's education by removing $12 million from current funding to pay for his private charter school. Your taxes would increase by between 6 and 8 percent per year. This will be your last chance to deny the mayor from making our district second class. Be there."
Pulling $12 million out the Cranston school system sounded bad enough, but the prospect of a tax increase of 6 percent to 8 percent was even more frightening.
But we were skeptical because, in the first place, state law limits property tax increases (the limit is currently 4.25 percent) unless a city or town gets a special exception from the General Assembly.
So we decided to investigate.
Charter schools are financed by local tax dollars but are free from many of the requirements that apply to traditional public schools. Supporters say such flexibility allows charters to have longer days and longer school years, and to experiment with alternative teaching methods. The students are usually chosen by lotteries and most schools are not unionized.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung had proposed a public charter school, known as a mayoral academy, for Cranston and Providence. A similar school is operating for residents of Cumberland, Lincoln, Central Falls and Pawtucket.
Under Fung’s proposal, the school would have been run by Achievement First, a nonprofit group that operates 19 similar charter schools in Connecticut and New York City. A board of directors headed by the mayor would have overseen the school.
The proposal was rejected by the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education on Sept. 1, 2011, after intervention by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who recommended an alternative: studying the possibility of creating an Achievement First mayoral academy in Providence, drawing students from that city, Cranston, and other communities.
In his letter, Chafee urged the regents to take the opposition in Cranston -- and there was a lot of it -- seriously.
Opponents say such schools are a threat to traditional public schools because they siphon away the most-promising students (those whose parents are involved enough to apply for the lottery) and drain the resources needed to make public schools better.
The robocall was reflecting that concern.
The calls were financed by Richard Tomlins, a Democrat who ran against Fung for mayor in 2010. He wrote the script for the calls.
We asked Tomlins why he referred to the academy as a "private" school when accountability would lie with the mayor, any Cranston child could apply for the lottery and parents wouldn't have to pay tuition.
Tomlins said it was because the nonprofit company that runs it, Achievement First, accepts corporate donations.
He said the $12-million figure came from multiplying the amount spent on teaching a child in Cranston (about $13,000 per pupil) by the number of pupils who would be leaving the system (950).
He said the robocall predicted an annual 6 percent to 8 percent tax increase because that's what it would take to raise the $12 million from property taxes.
THE ACTUAL NUMBERS
To check, we turned to an analysis by the Rhode Island Department of Education, which developed a list of the costs to Cranston of the proposed charter school.
First we looked whether the mayoral academy, if approved, would draw $12 million from "current funding."
The fact is, the project would not have removed a dime from the budget for the current fiscal year because the school would not have begun operations until a year from now.
So right off the bat, we were smelling lighter fluid.
Then, we examined whether the $12 million would be true for subsequent years.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, in the first year of operation, the school would have had 88 Cranston kindergartners, not 950 students as Tomlins had said. The state said the cost to the city that first year would have been $664,670, a price tag that would continue to grow as the school added more grades.
By the time those kindergartners had become fifth graders and the academy had evolved into a full-fledged elementary school in the fall of 2017, the annual loss to Cranston's school department was projected to be $6.2 million. At that point, it would have had 460 students, nearly half of what Tomlins said.
Thus, the amount of "current funding" being diverted to the academy this year, or six years from now, would not have come close to the $12 million mentioned in the robocall.
THE TAX QUESTION
How much would taxes go up if there had been a mayoral academy in Cranston?
For most PolitiFact items, we don't look at predictions. After all, things can change and predictions can only be fact-checked in retrospect.
But the debate over taxes offers some insight into one reason the academy was so controversial.
Fung’s proposal came at a time when Cranston is getting a big infusion of state education money -- the amount goes up by an extra $2.3 million per year every year through 2018 -- thanks to the state's new financing formula that benefits some communities over others.
The bad news for the School Department: It doesn't necessarily get to keep that money; it follows the student wherever that student goes.
Thus, if pupils get diverted to a mayoral academy that the School Department doesn't control, the department loses revenue.
Fung said that should not have mattered. The School Department may lose some financing, but it would also be losing students and the costs associated with teaching them. The cumulative projected cost of Cranston's share of the academy over six years was $20.3 million. Extra aid from the state financing formula over the same period will be $63.4 million.
"The funding formula is a per-pupil allocation and schools have to live within that," said Fung, whose Aug. 9 financial analysis of the proposal asserted that any fears that the mayoral academy "would necessitate new tax dollars, or may add an additional tax burden on Cranston residents are unfounded."
But opponents of the academy said it's not so simple. Losing 4 percent of your students may immediately take away 4 percent of your revenue, but it doesn't automatically cut 4 percent of your costs.
Steven Bloom, the unofficial budget expert on the School Committee and the man Tomlins himself suggested we consult, said that if the academy had been approved, it would have plunged the School Department's budget into the red by $20 million after five years and necessitated an annual tax increase of 2 percent to 3 percent per year.
(One reason: The department is trying to pay the city back for the $6 million it overspent in the previous years. Bloom said that without the academy, the department should be in the black by the 2016-17 fiscal year, thanks in part to the extra state money.)
ROBOCALL DOES NOT COMPUTE
But we're checking the facts behind Tomlins' robocall, a call that may have galvanized some of the local opposition Chafee was talking about.
It is also a call that Bloom, an opponent of the mayoral academy, characterized as "infuriating" and misinformed.
So let's summarize.
Tomlins characterized the mayoral academy as Fung's "private charter school," said it would have removed "$12 million from current funding," and would have increased taxes "between 6 and 8 percent per year."
It would not have been Fung's private school -- he would not have been able to take it with him when he left office. It would not have been a private school at all.
It would not have drained any money from the current school budget.
It would not have drained $12 million from the city in any annual budget projected through 2018.
The projected cumulative cost over six years would have been $20.3 million at a time when the city would be getting a $63.4 million infusion in additional state aid.
Even if you bought Bloom's argument that the academy would ultimately have sent the School Department $20 million into the red, that still would have left Cranston with $23.1 million more in its coffers to help improve the city's public schools.
And to threaten that the mayoral academy would have increased taxes by 6 percent to 8 percent each year when state law makes it difficult to impose such big tax hikes is ridiculous.
There were legitimate reasons to support or oppose Cranston's mayoral academy, but this robocall didn't correctly cite any of them.
And because the false, inflammatory statements were made anonymously, we're going to do a little inflaming of our own. We rate Tomlin's ridiculous robocall Pants On Fire!
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RILIN.state.ri.us, "Levy and Assessment of Local Taxes, Section 44-5-2," Rhode Island General Laws, accessed Sept. 2, 2011
Interview, Richard Tomlins, Democrat and former mayoral candidate in Cranston, R.I., Aug. 30, 2011
ScribD.com, "Achievement First Funding: Funding Formula Analysis," Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Aug. 31, 2011
RIDE.RI.gov, "FY2010 Per Pupil Expenditures - Sorted by Equalized Net Per Pupil," Rhode Island Department of Education, accessed Sept. 1, 2011
Interviews and emails, Elliot Krieger, spokesman, Rhode Island Department Education, Aug. 25-31, 2011
Interviews and email, Steven Bloom, Cranston School Committee, Aug. 31 and Sept 1, 2011
Interview, Allan Fung, Cranston mayor, Aug. 31, 2011
ScribD.com, "Proposed Mayoral Academy Fiscal Impact Analysis," Aug. 9, 2011, accessed Aug. 31, 2011
ScribD.com, "Achievement First Mayoral Academy Fiscal Impact Rebuttal," Cranston School Committee, Aug. 29, 2011, accessed Sept. 1, 2011
KidsCount.org, "Profile for Cranston (School District) - Public School Enrollment 2010," accessed Sept. 2, 2011
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