The governor offered millions for schools, but the mayor refused, insisting he saw too many strings attached.
Can the town afford to leave any money on the table?
Did the administration miss a key grant application deadline or did they save millions down the line?
“As you might remember, in his 2023 State of the State address, Governor McKee announced a goal of reaching Massachusetts education levels by 2030,” explained Matt Sheaff, Senior Communications Advisor for Rhode Island Gov. Daniel J. McKee. “In order to achieve this, the Governor launched Learn365RI. As the first part of the initiative, municipal leaders sign onto a Learn365RI Municipal Compact with the state, publicly making a commitment that they will make education a priority in their community. As a former mayor, the Governor knows firsthand how important it is to have municipal leaders engaged in education in their community.”
At stake was Johnston’s $2.2 million share of $81 million in federal funds for the community learning center program.
To apply, and receive the funds, municipalities were required to check a box, committing to McKee’s Learn365RI initiative.
Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. refused to check the box.
“While looking into this grant, it came to my attention you could not submit the grant unless you joined Learn365 and two other government spending programs, Health365 and Work365,” Polisena wrote via email last week. “Applicants literally cannot electronically submit the grant unless that box to join Learn365 is checked off — therefore Johnston was never eligible.”
Did the town miss the grant deadline?
“Yes, the town did miss the deadline by about 3 weeks,” Sheaff contends. “Additionally, in order to apply for the $81M, a community must first sign the Learn365RI Municipal compact which Johnston has not done.”
“I’m not sure why the Governor is talking about deadlines for a grant Johnston isn’t eligible for,” he argued. “That’s like saying you missed a flight when you never even had a plane ticket to begin with.”
McKee’s office “launched a federally-funded $81M program to support municipalities in opening community learning centers to foster more learning opportunities for students,” according to Sheaff. “This program is still in progress and the state is working with communities on crafting their proposals.”
Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti mentioned the grant during August’s regular monthly meeting. He asked the town administration whether they’d be applying (the deadline was the day of the meeting).
“I knew through my work that it became available and we had a very short time frame,” Civetti said last week. He works as an accountant with several municipal clients.
“Why wouldn’t we have participated in that from the get go?” Civetti asked last week. “We’re talking about building new schools and we don’t want to be part of Learn365? That doesn’t make any sense. I hate to see why we’re the minority.”
The mayor had left the meeting, and no members of his administration were in attendance at the meeting to answer Civetti’s questions.
“Did they fall asleep at the wheel and no one followed up on it?” Civetti asked last week. “I can’t explain their reasoning. It’s very possible they looked into it and decided (not to proceed).”
In the Minority
As of last week, according to Sheaff, 35 Rhode Island communities (or nearly 90%) have signed the compact, “because they understand the importance of uniting our state as one team around the idea of improving educational outcomes for our students.”
At their last regular meeting, School Committee Member Susan Mansolillo raised concerns that the schools are short-staffed, since this year’s school department budget request was slashed by the town (the schools requested more than $5 million more over last year, but received around $2 million more from the town).
“I said almost two months ago, the superintendent and myself were both in agreement, Johnston will not be joining Learn365,” Polisena said last week.
Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. backed up the mayor.
“The Mayor and I entered into a discussion with the Governor's Learn 365 Coordinator,” DiLullo explained. “During that discussion we were not able to ascertain whether there would be funding to continue programs that were started with these available funds. Our goal is to become more cost effective in our delivery of high quality instruction and to be able to sustain that investment.”
The schools have been tasked with cutting tasks, while simultaneously planning a massive school building project. (The project was pitched to voters as a town wide school system overhaul, however major portions — including middle and high school renovations — have been significantly altered or dropped altogether.)
“I believe our focus has to be on instruction during the school day,” DiLullo argued. “I don't believe a longer school day will necessarily enhance student outcomes without a strong curriculum and highly effective teachers. The plan as described to us contained neither.”
The town and its school system have decided to take their own path toward school improvement.
“We have purchased high quality curriculum materials in both English Language Arts and Mathematics,” DiLullo explained. “This year we are piloting a high quality science program at our middle school. All our teachers will be trained in research based reading instruction whether they teach reading or other content areas. We also have purchased the services of Throughline Learning to coach teachers in their instruction in real time.”
Sheaff further explained the Learn365RI Municipal Compacts.
“The compacts are public statements by municipal leaders that send an important message to residents that their community is committed to improving educational outcomes for students and that this will be a priority for everyone going forward,” he wrote via email.
He insists the town would not have faced ongoing program costs down the road, and Polisena and DiLullo’s fears are unfounded.
“Once a community signs onto Learn365RI, they become eligible for various sources of funding and other support to help expand learning opportunities so we can reach that goal,” Sheaff explained. “The community can choose which programs they want to participate in. All programs are opt-in.”
Sheaff said that “a community can sign onto Learn365RI at any time.”
“Programs under the Learn365RI initiative have their own application deadlines,” he said. “Signing the compact does not commit any municipality to any financial expenditures — signing the compact says that you’re committed to improving educational outcomes in your community.”
Despite assurances from the governor’s office, Polisena had the town’s new lawyer look into the matter.
“Our solicitor, Allan Fung, called the Governor’s office three weeks after the deadline and asked to see documentation submitted to the US Treasury by the state, because he and I both had a question as to whether the Governor could legally withhold federal funds from municipalities who opt not to join his pet project spending programs,” Polisena wrote last week.
Polisena, a former governor’s office employee (he says he resigned from his position prior to running for mayor), doubts the initial funds come with no fiscal strings.
“I’m not taking the instant gratification of $2.2 million while committing Johnston to three additional government spending programs (Learn365, Work365, Health365), especially when the future revenue to fund these programs isn’t even identified, as it will end up costing taxpayers more in the long haul,” he wrote. “You can’t always make decisions for the here and now, you have to look at how those decisions will impact you in the future. Federal funds should be used for one time capital expenditure projects, not to create government programs with a recurring annual expense.”
Federal well running dry?
Other federal funding initiatives in town are also in doubt. The town’s former mayor, Polisena Jr.’s father Joseph M. Polisena, had announced three major garage projects in town, funded by approximately 9 million federal dollars from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Several sources have disclosed that those projects have experienced similar cost overruns to the school building project, and the status of at least two of three municipal garages may be in doubt (the town had originally planned garages to shelter Johnston’s Police, Fire and Department of Public Works vehicle fleets).
“At some point, all of this federal money is going to run out and there’s going to be a reckoning for those who are using these funds for recurring expenses,” Polisena warned. “When that happens, there’s only two options: cut the programs or absorb them into the existing budget. I’m not signing up Johnston to join that list.”
Civetti questions the reasoning behind the mayor’s move.
“Why not sign on initially?” He asked. “That’s what has me baffled. We want to increase the test scores. I was hoping that Johnston, especially since we were allocated over $2 million … I was hoping we would sign on to it … We haven’t seen things like this in the past; through the governors office. I don’t know why any of my colleagues wouldn’t be in favor of participating in this.”
Sheaff made a final point in his explanation of the Learn365RI initiative.
“It’s important to underscore the fact that Learn365RI is not one single program or one single source of funding,” he explained. “The term ‘Learn365RI’ refers to the overarching effort to improve education outcomes for our students.”
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