Dysfunctional Tiny Cities and Dysfunctional Tiny School Districts: The Sorry Story of Central Falls, RI

Central Falls High School 

Central Falls, Rhode Island–infamous since its superintendent attempted to fire every single high school teacher last year–filed for bankruptcy today. Local officials are promising the bankruptcy will be the city's first step on the road to economic revitalization. "From the ashes of bankruptcy Central Falls will rise again," claimed Robert Flanders, the state-appointed city receiver. 

I hate to say it, but that may be far too optimistic: Central Falls has long been unable to function as an independent municipality. Since 1991, its failing school district–less than half of all students graduate high school on time–has been controlled and funded by the state of Rhode Island. Last year the state also took the reins of the city government, which presided over a $5 million deficit and $80 million in unfunded health and pension benefits.

Central Falls simply does not have a healthy tax base. It consists of a tiny, 1.2-square mile parcel of land straddling the Blackstone River. Until 1895, Central Falls was part of the nearby (and now affluent) town of Lincoln, Rhode Island. But at the height of the region's economic confidence, when the Blackstone Valley was bursting with textile mills, Central Falls became independent. That decision has never been seriously reconsidered, even though Central Falls' 19,000 residents, many of them low-income immigrants from Central America, are today living in a post-industrial landscape lacking decent social services and accountable government. The contiguous 73,000-person city of Pawtucket, on the other hand, has better and more diverse schools, a lower poverty rate, and a more economically-vibrant downtown. 

I've written before that I'm against tiny school districts, and the saga of Central Falls is a good reminder why. The schoolchildren of this teeny little "city" are segregated from the children of the surrounding, normally-sized municipalities. When I visited Central Falls High School this spring, I found a school earnestly attempting to turn itself around, but hindered by a sense of distrust between and among teachers, administrators, students, and families.

The thing is, school cultures don't grow in a vacuum–they are shaped by the cultures of the cities and towns that host them. Central Falls is particularly dysfunctional. Something radical needs to change. 

4 thoughts on “Dysfunctional Tiny Cities and Dysfunctional Tiny School Districts: The Sorry Story of Central Falls, RI

  1. RI Resident

    I agree, I lived in Central Falls till I was 8, then my family moved to Pawtucket. CF cannot survive as it, it really needs to be annexed to Pawtucket or Lincoln, but what city wants to inherit the school with the worst graduation rate in the state?

  2. Robert Rothman

    School district consolidation is about as popular as school closing. The state of Vermont, with 92,000 students (less than, say, Long Beach, California), has 291 school districts. Years ago, a governor tried to consolidate and got her head handed to her. (She later became ambassador to her native Switzerland).

    Rhode Island has 39 school districts. In the 1990s, the state tried to offer incentives for consolidation. Only two took them up on it.

    As long as districts rely on property taxes, districts will be reluctant to join forces.


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