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Woonsocket schools takeover request under review

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s education commissioner said Thursday she is reviewing a request from the City of Woonsocket for the state to take over its public schools, as a state-appointed budget commission hurries to craft a spending plan that would let the city avoid receivership.

Commissioner Deborah A. Gist said the state is looking at the city’s ability to pay for its school system and whether it meets the legal criteria for a takeover. Among the factors under consideration are Woonsocket’s taxable property, tax rate, and how it spends tax dollars, Gist said.

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She added she wants to make sure the impact on students is minimal. Woonsocket has about 6,000 students.

‘‘It’s my responsibility as the commissioner of education to make sure every child in the state receives an excellent education,’’ Gist said.

The Woonsocket School Committee voted 4-1 on Wednesday to seek the takeover. A $10 million schools deficit has pushed the city of about 41,000 residents to the brink of bankruptcy. The city budgeted $59.3 million to spend on schools this year.

The crisis prompted Governor Lincoln Chafee’s administration to appoint a budget commission last month to oversee the city’s finances; a commission is the second of three possible levels of state oversight.

‘‘We’ve run out of money,’’ school board member John Donlon told the Associated Press Thursday. ‘‘We owe $10 million.’’

The request came after the General Assembly adjourned this week without approving a 13 percent supplemental property tax on Woonsocket residents that would have helped close the budget hole. The measure stalled in the House after negotiations broke down between members of the city’s delegation and the governor’s office. The Woonsocket delegation proposed an 8.5 percent tax as a compromise.

Some School Committee members predicted the state is unlikely to grant their takeover request.

‘‘I think they don’t want to inherit the problem that they have essentially created by reducing state aid,’’ said school board member Chris Roberts. ‘‘The odds are not good.’’

State takeovers of municipal school systems are rare in Rhode Island. In 1991, the state took control of the public school system in Central Falls .

The state is reviewing information from the Central Falls takeover as part of its consideration of Woonsocket’s request. Rhode Island continues to run schools in Central Falls, where the local government has been in bankruptcy since August.

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