July 28, 2017

News Briefs

Posted

City Finances:

The city council was told in an April meeting what you read here in a March Reporter special feature. City finances are in pretty good shape since the state budget commission took over local financing. In approximately six years, the city of East Providence has boldly gone from financial bleakness to a coveted "AA" bond rating. The higher a municipality's bond issue is, the lower interest it gets charged for loans and bonds to manage budgets and build schools or other bond-related projects. It can mean millions of tax dollars saved. There are only two higher bond rating levels, AA+ and AAA. Rating agency Standard & Poor (S&P) rarely assigns those highest ratings to cities and towns. East Providence has jumped three levels from A to AA. S&P describes an AA rating as "an obligor with a very strong capacity to meet its financial commitments. It differs from the highest-rated obligors only to a small degree."

The Reporter sat down with state appointed watchdog and Finance Advisor Paul Luba in March as Luba outlined the long road from financial despair to financial success. However Luba pointed out to possible potential pitfalls in the city's near future. Luba cautioned that all of the city's major union contracts are up for renewal later this year. "All of them, at once. It won't be easy, it is very hard to relinquish something you already have. Also Luba worried that if revenue and state aid drops, "that's a big problem." Since the budget commission left, councils have levied zero or very low tax increases. "Even at the 4% cap for a tax increase, it will be difficult to fund everything," added Luba. One group of union employees most likely not in a mood to give back major concessions are the teachers. They've only recently regained some ground on what they feel were very unfair salary, benefit and retirement losses.

City Director of Finance Malcolm Moore told the city council in an April 18th meeting that city finances are pretty stable right now. Moore echoed what Luba had stated by saying the city has a good ability to borrow money once again. Moore said that the city was carrying a $36 million debt amount in running the city. $21 million is money the school department has used to repair and maintain a troubled infrastructure through recent years. Close to $15 million is the amount borrowed for the municipal side of operations.

With a debt ceiling of about $120 million the city still has room to borrow $84 million more if needed. Watchdog Luba, however, cautioned that while borrowing money is a standard practice, "all debt has costs." Luba suggested that it would cost $2.2 million in annual payments to support a 15 year $34 million bond - as an example.

Paul Luba also addressed the oft-discussed issue of synchronizing the city budget regarding East Providence's fiscal year structure. Luba and Moore outlined this question in their presentation: "What is this synchronization issue? East Providence's fiscal year-end is 10/31. East Providence is one of two municipalities (Scituate is the other) in Rhode Island with a fiscal year-end that is not 6/30. The State of Rhode Island has a 6/30 year-end. East Providence maintains a tax year starting 7/1 and ending 6/30. Its tax year is out-of-synch with its fiscal year, that is tax year assessments are collected over two fiscal years, and each fiscal year collects revenues based on two different tax assessment years."

Luba differs with the long held belief that East Providence has a better idea of state aid as it puts together a spending plan and budget. Luba said that generally the initial financial documents provided by the state at the first of the year are usually accurate enough to plan a budget. The Luba/Moore presentation went on to state: "The big budget problem for the City with different fiscal and tax years is estimating the amount of property taxes that will be collected in any fiscal year. East Providence residents have the option of prepaying property taxes by 7/1 to collect an early pay discount that currently stands at 1.5%. Many exercise this option. Over 68% of current year tax revenues (approx. $69M) are collected prior to 7/30. Current year tax collections have the potential to differ either way from year-to-year by several percentage points (each % point is approx. $1M of revenue), however, they have been remarkably consistent over the years," explained Moore.

The timing of how and when the city may receive its revenue is critical to how the city manages its budgeting. To fill in the gap, the city will borrow money in Tax Anticipation Notes, commonly called TANS. Most years the city will have to borrow about $20M in TANS which would then be paid back when tax revenue comes in. In the past, the city had difficulty or couldn't borrow TANS due to its poor bond ratings.

There is an upfront cost of about $40M in TANS to bring the city to full synchronization. Luba said the city should have about half that amount in a "fund" in order to start this process. Previous city officials have begun this process but the fund only has about $2.5M so far.

Although the reasons to synchronize the city fiscal year with the state were outlined, there are also reasons why doing so may not be a great idea: "The annual cost to repay the bond over 10 years is high ($5.2M). The city will have little financial flexibility to fund other projects. It will be possible but will require fiscal discipline. Annual bond repayment costs over a 15 year ($4M) or a 20 year ($3.4M) period, will give the city fewer year-to-year budget constraints, but will result in a higher cumulative interest burden ($10M vs. $18M vs. $27M) over the life of the bond. The longer EP pays off the bond, the more interest is involved. Synchronization essentially wipes out $40 mm of EP's existing debt capacity."

Another fund the city has that could help with a missed revenue budget is the "rainy day fund." East Providence now has an about $11M in this fund. Missed revenue budgets due to timing of collections from having to deal with a non-synchronized year would be an acceptable reason to utilize the rainy day fund. It cannot be used to replace a boiler in a school, for example. The fund can help resolve an annual deficit due to tax collection shortfalls, state funding shortfalls and dramatic increases to healthcare (which has a 6/30 year-end). "Synchronization may not be as crucial now as it was before the Rainy Day Fund," said Luba.

In our earlier discussion with Paul Luba, he said, as did the budget commission, that the root of the city's financial woes began with school deficit funding. "This problem had been building up since around 2000," said Luba. While the city was running a surplus, the school department was carrying an accumulated deficit of some $7.6 million. At one point an unpaid bill for special education services payable to Bradley Hospital had reached $6 million. "The teacher contract was a culprit. There were no co-shares." Basically bills couldn't get paid and as the city's bond rating plummeted, there was no cash or ability to secure TANs.

Various school officials say they were helpless to stop the bleeding. They cite unfunded state mandates and the cost of some expensive special educational spending needs that were beyond local control. School officials also decried what they saw as a lack of providing funds for necessary school upgrades through the years. "We warned every year at budget time, of the dangers in not properly funding our schools."

"It wasn't popular but the budget commission came in with the authority to fix things. They had the tools to fix things which the city lacked," said Luba.

In an earlier discussion with Mayor James Briden, he said that "our objective is to have worked diligently on the underpinnings of the Budget. We need to examine the question of whether there is too great of an opportunity cost associated with pursuing tax year synchronization given the cost of the bond necessary to effectuate same. Is there a more impactful use of this money for our City? This issue warrants serious debate and analysis. The City Council values public input on these issues. This is an important year for East Providence and our objective is to make wise decisions in the context of a long term plan and vision for our city," added Briden.

After the April council meeting Mayor and councilman-at-large James Briden said that "This was a good presentation and discussion on East Providence finance. This discussion is important to our fiscal future."

Paul Luba's appointment as Finance Adviser to East Providence will end in September of 2018. He is also advising the City of Woonsocket. Luba's salary and benefit package for both jobs is at $120,000. The state contributes $60,000 and East Providence's share is $30,000. Luba is part of every budget meeting the city has and is also in attendance at the newly named Charter Commission meetings. The state law governing Luba's appointment as Financial Adviser gives him sweeping powers. His appointment letter states in part, "Monitor and oversee all financial operations and activities including the city's or town's operating and capital financial plans to maintain fiscal stability."

Luba's involvement has been seen as a positive one by many city budget watchdogs. "I see myself as having the power of persuasion and advice," Luba said. "I approve the budget process, yes, but I think we're all working well together. I think I have helped the situation. "I think Paul Luba and the budget commission deserve a lot of credit for helping to improve our financial situation," said Briden.

(readers can refer to the March issue of The Reporter for an in-depth feature on how EP moved "from despair to success.")

New EP High School Discussion Continues. Cost Could reach or exceed $150M:

One of the most studied buildings in East Providence is once again underneath a microscope as the current City Council and School Committee are looking into the condition of East Providence High School. When East Providence High School opened in 1952, it received national acclaim as a "showplace of the Northeast for High Schools." With its sprawling two-floor campus, gleaming terrazzo tiling, professional auditorium, large swimming pool with galley and comprehensive academic course offerings, EPHS was a jewel. It remained so for thousands of graduates.

According to many close to the development of the current problems with EPHS, many local officials refused to support necessary capital improvements as budget items through the years. "Preventable maintenance remained a low priority for city school buildings."

The problems with the city's only high school have been well chronicled and in recent years the high school has received millions of dollars in school repairs and upgrades. Although the schools massive boiler room has relatively new boilers, the problem remains that plumbing and electrical that feed the power plant are beyond repair. "It's like getting a new heart but still having totally clogged arteries everywhere," said school committeeman Joel Monteiro.

An expanded library, new science lab, new floor tiles throughout the building, new lighting and several other improvements are not expected to be enough to avoid a recommendation that a brand new high school is needed in East Providence.

In a January 2016 city council - school committee meeting, Superintendent of Schools Kathryn Crowley said, "I've worked on and supervised major renovations on schools in four other districts." There are serious electrical and plumbing needs here. We do need a professional engineering study. We have one science lab, although a great one, for 1500 students. The plumbing system is all clogged, the underground cavern of the school is amazing. There will be abatement needed, we have duct tape on some window frames to stop drafty windows, we must do something quickly. We have great teachers, it's the plant that is lacking. In my experience we are talking millions of dollars here. All of the other schools I refer to were not as old as this high school," Crowley added.

Indeed the high school accreditation process had been hindered on the campus infrastructure. "Our academics were a strong point for us. It's the building that needs work," said Crowley. The school has since received its accreditation.

In March the School Department and City officials received and an independent summary and analysis on the condition and future of the 65 year old high school on Pawtucket avenue. The City Council had engaged the Slam Collaborative architectural firm along with Frank Locker Educational Planning. The discussion now centers on whether the City should renovate or build a new high school. Many in the city want the building razed. One thought has a new school being built behind the current school, replacing all of the athletic fields. Presumably, once built, the old school would then be razed and fields could be relocated toward Pawtucket Avenue. A second proposal has a new school being built at the current site of the Pierce Field complex. It is unclear at this point if the football stadium and other ball fields would be able to relocate at the Pierce site.

"The purpose of this analysis is to assess the existing East Providence High School facility relative to its ability to support 21st century learning, how it compares with current Rhode Island Department of Education standards, and its current student enrollment capacity," stated an introduction from the report.

The analysis is based on four components: current educational practices, vision for future educational practices, facility enrollment capacity related to RIDE standard and overall facility size related to state standards. The report concludes that "the facility falls short on every measure."

The analysis concluded that the current facility impairs and restricts school operations and educational deliveries. "It will be a bigger impediment as the school aspires to deliver 21st century learning."

At-large councilman, Mayor James Briden seems to agree that preventative maintenance is a key to this issue and may indeed have been a problem in the past. Briden released a statement which said: "The East Providence City Council and School Committee took a tour of the high school on March 28th. As we walked through the school the question that came to mind was whether elected officials, ten and twenty years from now, would also be observing an EP school that from hindsight required more capital investment and preventative maintenance over time.

True to the idea that those who do not learn from our history are doomed to repeat it, I believe that we need to now address the underlying systemic problem of not investing enough in our school buildings over the years in order to preserve what we have.

This is obviously wiser than not doing so and then being faced with the far more expensive alternative of constructing a new building.

So let's start by taking an inventory. This needs to include reviewing copies of all school improvement plans and expenditures from 2013 to the present.

In addition, we need to have a report on the condition of the other school buildings and to know what to expect over the next five and ten years.

No decisions have been made at this point on the high school.

Finally, our City's Planning Department needs to play a central role in guiding us through this process. The time has come to implement a meaningful long term plan." - Mayor Jim Briden.

Rhode Island to Drop Controversial School PARCC Tests:

The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) announced its intention to adopt new assessments, starting in the 2017-2018 school year. These assessments will continue to measure student progress on Rhode Island’s current grade-level learning standards and expectations while cutting overall testing time.

"We’re always looking for ways to improve teaching and learning, and that includes our state

assessments. This shift from PARCC to the RICAS and PSAT/SAT is responsive to feedback we have received from educators, students, and families. Massachusetts has a long history as a

leader in education, and adopting the RICAS ensures long-term sustainability with a reliable

neighboring state partner. The PSAT and SAT are well-respected and accepted by U.S. colleges

and universities.

By changing tests, are we changing grade-level learning standards and expectations? No, Rhode Island will continue to use the rigorous, high-quality standards of the Common Core, meaning that teachers will not have to change their approach to classroom instruction," said RIDE.

For students in grades 3 through 8, the state is in advanced discussions with Massachusetts to use the “RICAS,” a Rhode Island administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). At the high school level, the state will use the PSAT and SAT to meet federal testing requirements. The move to update assessments comes as Rhode Island drafts its State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, and implements a comprehensive strategy for education as delineated in legislation passed last year by Deputy Majority Leader Gregg Amore (D-East Providence).

“This approach will provide continuity in the classroom for teachers and students, maintain high quality assessment information about student progress, build a long-term partnership with a high performing neighboring state, and further decrease testing time. The short-term impact will be small, but the long-term benefits have the potential to be significant,” said Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Ken Wagner. “Taken together, this combination of RICAS and PSAT/SAT provides us with the best, most consistent measure of student progress, without placing undue burden on students or educators,” continued the RIDE statement.

“Economic and workforce development starts in our schools, and we continue to make huge strides in connecting classrooms to careers and providing students with the skills, opportunities, knowledge, and support that they need,” said Governor Gina Raimondo. “This is another piece of the puzzle, which will align Rhode Island to our neighbors in Massachusetts and set students on a path to success.”

“Rhode Island has high standards and expectations for all of our students, and by shifting to this system of assessments, we can have a better understanding of how our students are performing now, and what goals we must set to help them be successful in the future,” said Barbara S. Cottam, Chair of the Board of Education.

“Massachusetts is a national and international leader in education. Aligning our assessments to theirs will raise expectations for Rhode Island’s K-12 education system. This long overdue initiative will foster the accountability necessary to move us to higher levels of achievement,” said Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

“Our members are looking for stability. They want RIDE to select an assessment program that is aligned to our curriculum and then stay the course. This decision accomplishes those goals while giving our state a sustainable path forward. Using the SAT and PSAT at the high school level and partnering with Massachusetts in grades 3-8, we are using recognizable, successful assessment instruments that will be understood and supported by parents, teachers and the community,” said Dr. Timothy Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association.

“The question I have, on any initiative or policy, is, ‘does it help teachers?’ I’m hopeful that this shift will lighten some of the burden on our teachers and provide them with a clear, long-term plan that supports and enhances their important work,” said Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

“From a student perspective, I think this is the right choice and the right direction for our state. This will mean less time spent testing at both the elementary and secondary levels. At the high school level, it removes the stress of preparation for two standardized tests. Using a test that students will need for higher education that also provides our state's education system with valuable information is a win for all,” said Colby Anderson, chairperson of the Rhode Island Student Advisory Council and a senior at East Greenwich High School. Graduation requirements are not changing, and performance on the PSAT and SAT will not

be tied to the earning of a diploma.

Ward Three Slighted on Streets Project? Joe Botelho asks:

Ward Three councilman Joe Botelho wrote a letter to Acting City Manager Tim Chapman in which he asks why there are no streets in his ward scheduled for repair. The April 19th Botelho states; "After reviewing the proposed road paving program presented to you from Mr. Couto (DPW Director), I have some concerns. In the past, it was understood that any road work to be done in the city would be divided up evenly among the wards, as this is probably the most visible improvement impact that people relate to paying their taxes. Upon reviewing the current proposal, it appears that work is being done in every ward except ward 3, which concerns me.

I was also surprised at the few number of roads being proposed for re-paving, especially based on the number of roads throughout the city that are in such dire need of repair. The allocation of $500,000, which a small percentage of the city's $175 million budget, should be able to accommodate a much larger scope than that of which is proposed. For example, 30 years ago in budget year 1985-1986, the city allocated $160,000 to the street-sidewalk-curb budget and was able to repave 26 roads, not just 9. Using the federal governments consumer price index, $160,000 adjusted for inflation today would equal $368, 286.

So in essence we are spending 26% more on fixing roads than 30 years ago, adjusted for inflation, and paving 65% less road. Please explain," writes Joe Botelho. Botelho raised his concerns during the April 18th City Council meeting. Public Works Director Steve Couto told the council that the city was preparing to spend $500,000 for paving streets. The funds would mostly come from capital and highway operating budgets for road rehab.

In an April 11th memo to Manager Tim Chapman, Director Couto explained that the following roads were scheduled for paving: "New Road, from Newport Avenue to Green Lane Road; Fifth Street, from Warren Avenue to Juniper Street; Juniper Street, from Lyon Avenue to Fourth Street; Brightridge Avenue, from Warren Ave to Brown St.; Earl Avenue, from Sherman Street to River Street; Franklin Street, from Metro Park Drive to Harriet Street and Harriet Street, from Franklin Street to Willett Avenue.

The following list of roadways will be paved following the completion of water main improvement work: Greenwood Ave (Don to Hoyt) and Bishop Ave (Newman to Ferris)."

The council did not act on the proposal agreeing with Botelho's request for more time to study the issue. It will be re-introduced at its May 2nd meeting.

2017 Rhode Island Governor for a Day - EP's Mianna Gonsalves

Mianna Gonsalves of Emma G. Whiteknact Elementary School is the winner of Governor Raimondo’s essay contest for Women’s History Month. Last month the Governor announced Mianna’s success as well as shared statements from runners-up in a press release:

"Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced the winner of her Women’s History Month essay contest. Rhode Island's 2017 Governor for a Day is Mianna Gonsalves, an 11-year-old student at Emma G. Whiteknact Elementary School who wrote about the importance of fostering student leadership at a young age.

"I was so impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication, and maturity of these future leaders," Raimondo said. "Mianna's essay inspires young girls—and all students—to become leaders in their communities, and I'm excited to spend the day with her."

Mianna wrote in her essay that she wanted to be Rhode Island's Governor for a Day because, "Students should not have to wait until middle or high school to lead, they should get to start in elementary school."

She also hopes to promote healthy lifestyles, writing, "My school started an exercise and movement initiative. I would like to expand upon this and make it statewide. How cool would it be if all fifth graders in the state were participating in movement breaks together? Whether it’s yoga or running, I think it would be amazing if the whole state was doing it together!"

The Governor's Office received hundreds of submissions from middle school girls across the state. "I want to thank all the girls who participated in the contest," Raimondo added. "Reading their enthusiastic, creative essays assures me that the future is in good hands."

Google Computer Initiative in all grades K-9:

Over the past 6 months, the East Providence School Department has rolled out a 1:1 Google Chromebook initiative in all grades K-9. "This project has had all hands on deck and many contributors have prioritized the initiative to see the project completed ahead of schedule. The outcome is a successful blended learning environment that impacts nearly 3,000 of our students and provides our students the opportunity for blended learning all day long. All of the pieces are now in place for their success,” stated Chief Information Officer, Kelly Ahrens, who rolled out the technology implementation.

School Committee Chairman, Charles Tsonos said “This opportunity will open significant doors to the children of East Providence for years to come. Many, if not all, careers are touched by this technology in one way or another. Every tool on the toolbox is important. We are all providing the tools for a better future. In the school department, the administration, the teachers, all of the support staff, and the school committee are driving forward to give the East Providence student the best opportunities for their future. Of that aim, we are all of one mind,” added Tsonos.

"With the new Google classrooms installed on the Chromebooks, the possibilities for learning are endless,” said tech coach Stacey Azevedo.

Superintendent Katherine Crowley said "I am excited that we were able to complete this initiative of 1:1 ChromeBooks for our students. This initiative will foster greater student achievement in a highly technical world."

This district-wide effort supports education, teachers, and students and "is something that we’re really proud of. The work of teachers, coaches, and the IT team give the initiative the chance to move forward and we’re excited to see the possibilities for our students.” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Sandra Forand.

Chromebooks in classrooms aren’t completely new to the district. In the past, each classroom had 6 chromebooks per classroom, but the addition of 3800 devices has enabled all students to actively participate daily. The East Providence Information Technology team has made the roll-out a priority by setting up the Chromebooks and getting each one registered. Information Services Manager, Carlos Valotto, said that “upon registration to the management console, we can now manage applications and policies without having to physically be in the building, giving us more time to focus on interactive technology in the classrooms.” The 1:1 project will continue over the next couple of years and the intention is to have a Chromebook for every East Providence student.

State Street Cleanup:

Ward Two Councilwoman Anna Sousa reached out to State Street residents who have experienced drainage related problems for years. "I appreciate our Highway Division personnel cleaning catch basins with the vac/jet truck and catch basin cleaning truck. Debris is being removed from both the catch basin structure and the storm water pipes in the State Street neighborhood to help improve drainage," said Sousa.

"This cleanup is part of a larger project that will help to alleviate drainage concerns in the neighborhood. In addition to the cleanup efforts the cleanup of overgrown trees and debris will be dredged to make way for swales. Hopefully a retention pond in six various locations along that residential area will help," Sousa said. "This effort will hopefully address concerns and provide much needed relief.

Pawtucket Avenue Bridge Work Continues:

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) announced continued weekend Interstate lane restrictions and bridge closures associated with the replacement of the Pawtucket Avenue Bridge over I-195 in East Providence. At the conclusion of initial weekend closures, there will be a new restrictions in place for I-195 traffic. A lane shift will be in place for both directions of travel. Additionally, I-195 East at Exit 7 will be re-striped with one less travel lane continuing on into Massachusetts. There only will be two through lanes and one exit-only lane. The center lane will have the option of exiting or continuing through on I-195 East.

To complete the work as quickly as possible and minimize impact to motorists, pedestrians and area businesses, the Department is using accelerated bridge construction methods to replace it in just four months. Using traditional construction methods, it would have taken two years to complete the work.

To complete the work in the 120-day compressed timeframe, RIDOT must institute a number of traffic pattern changes. Lane restrictions for both the bridge and I-195 will be in place throughout the duration of the project. The most disruptive restrictions take place during the series of eight weekend closures. RIDOT strongly recommends motorists plan ahead, provide extra travel time and consider alternate routes.

Originally built in 1959, the Pawtucket Avenue Bridge is located between Warren Avenue and Grosvenor Avenue and carries 23,000 vehicles per day. It is one of the most heavily traveled bridges in East Providence.

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