At 87 years old, Eugene Nadeau holds the distinction of being the oldest elected official in Rhode Island. Come January, he will be one of three Warwick School Committee members to be replaced by newly-elected members – one of which will happen to be, poetically, the youngest elected official in the state.
The changing of the guard within the school committee could mean significant changes for the Warwick School Department going forward, as all three members who won seats – Kyle Adams in District 1, Judy Cobden in District 2 and Nathan Cornell in District 3 – have vocally expressed grievances with how the current school committee and school administration operates.
The new members will join incumbent committee members David Testa – who, while demonstrating sharp critical thinking throughout his tenure, has often sided with the administration on issues pertaining to finances and the strategies employed by Superintendent Philip Thornton to, hopefully, move the district forward in a positive direction – and Karen Bachus, who has also been an outspoken critic of the school administration and is often the lone “nay” vote on issues ranging from awarding small, individual contract awards to passing overall budgets.
The new configuration sets the scene for a school committee that will consist of four out of five members who are, at the very least, inherently skeptical of the current administration, which to some in the city is exactly what they believe is needed.
“I wish them well in their future endeavors,” said Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers’ Union, on the departure of Nadeau, Terri Medeiros and chairwoman Bethany Furtado. “My problem with them was that they kept forgetting that they were the superintendent’s boss. I tried to remind them of that repeatedly…If you don’t want to cut custodians, you say go find the cuts somewhere else. You don’t just take what they say, you hold the administration accountable.”
Netcoh said that she was hopeful the new amalgam of the school committee would usher in a new era of more transparency. She felt that Thornton failed to properly communicate certain issues to the committee and the public, such as when fire alarms became non-operational at Norwood and Holliman Elementary Schools.
“I think they have already expressed a desire to hold everyone accountable,” she said of the new committee members. “And people should be held accountable. If teachers are held accountable, if teachers are evaluated and principals are evaluated, then the superintendent should be held accountable.”
Bachus said that she felt the new committee would be “different” and that she agrees the new members have expressed concerns about the schools and want to see changes happen. One decision that will be up to the new committee right away is whether or not to hire a collection agency to recover unpaid lunch debts that have ballooned 500 percent from last year to this year. They will also have to jostle with the lingering budgetary shortfall, which has inched perilously closer to a lawsuit against the city since the summertime.
At the heart of the budgetary issue is the chasm between the Warwick School Department and the Warwick City Council. Both Adams and Cornell made a point during their election campaigns to say that repairing the damaged relationships between the two bodies was necessary. Bachus, too, was hopeful for such a reconciliation.
“There hasn’t been a good relationship with the council,” Bachus said. “I look forward to improving that relationship and working with the council to do what’s necessary to improve our schools and to make sure that we’re properly funded.”
Who will be chair?
Another big decision will be who to make the new chair of the committee. The obvious choice seems to be Bachus, who said she would be interested in the position, and more closely aligns with the personalities of the incoming members – as she has often held the line as a lone voice of criticism against the school administration while on the committee.
“It’s important to look at all the sides, which is often what I try to bring up, and I think David does too,” Bachus said.
Bachus said that she has already asked Testa and the incoming members of the committee if they’d be open to the committee vote for chairperson being held during the regular business meeting in January so that the public could see the process. She says advocating for better transparency would be her primary goal if she became chairwoman.
“I hope that we can all be collaborative and work to make things better for everybody,” she said.
Bachus said that she would be interested in establishing a dedicated finance committee that would be able to better break down the budget in a way that could be more easily understood, saying “If I become chair, the way that we do the budget will be completely different. Perhaps that will make a difference.”
However, an issue that won’t be under the immediate control to the new committee is the employment status of Thornton and fellow administrative heads Anthony Ferrucci (director of finance) and Katherine Duncanson (director of human relations). Those top administrators were given contract extensions in June, which extended their current deals from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2021.
The reasoning at the time from Nadeau, Furtado and Testa was that the administrative team had navigated through challenging years that encompassed considerable school consolidation, a prolonged teacher contract dispute and budgetary complications. To hold their heads to the chopping block, as reasonably could have happened with a more critical school committee taking over, would be premature and damaging to the district, as consistency is an important factor in districts that perform well.
The new school committee members will still hold a majority when the contracts run out in 2021, and at that time the strategies employed by Thornton and his administrative team will be more solidified as to whether or not they have succeeded, Testa said at the time. On Wednesday, Testa outlined his hopes for the new committee to think to the future.
“All school committees need to relentlessly focus on student achievement and district performance, and the RICAS scores make that painfully obvious,” he said in an email. “The incoming school committee should be no exception. My hope is that the new committee makes this their primary focus because, historically, we didn’t and our district’s performance reflects that. To not focus on this would be completely irresponsible. We can’t fight yesterday’s battles nor go back to yesterday’s ways. We need to embrace change and implement those things that high-performing districts do. We’ve started that and we need to continue it unabated. We can’t prepare today’s students for yesterday’s careers.”
During the Dec. 11 meeting of the committee – the last meeting for the current configuration of the school committee – Nadeau gave a teary speech on his service to the district over eight years on the committee. He held up his campaign sign that he has often displayed prior to meetings beginning and with a gasp from the audience he tore it in half. It was a visual symbol that emphasized the changing of times.
“I wish I had another four years,” Nadeau said in a follow-up call last week. “I would have liked to have run for another four years, because there is so much on our plate that needs to be fixed and put into practice. Obviously, there’s something going wrong in Warwick.”
Nadeau mentioned how Warwick ranks in the bottom third of Rhode Island as far as standardized testing despite the teachers making a pay grade that puts them in the top 3 percent of pay scales in the nation. He said that Warwick, despite not having the same problems as an urban district like Providence – with high ELL percentages and a higher rate of poverty and crime – the results simply aren’t where they should be, and need to be.
“That is something we’re living with and shouldn’t have to live with any longer,” he said. “I hope the new ones [committee members] coming in understand that.”
Nadeau said that, between the declining enrollment and massive budget deficit, the district is “between a rock and a hard place” and that he doesn’t see any easy way out of the difficult situation. He said that issues of teacher absenteeism and funding to the district by the state are two other huge areas to focus on and improve.
“I hope the three coming in can duplicate the work that we’ve tried to accomplish,” Nadeau said. “That’s all you can do. You hope. The motto for RI is ‘Hope,’ and sometimes you think it should be changed to ‘Hopeless,’ but the glass, to me, is still half full.”
Chairwoman Furtado, who spent 12 years on the school committee, said that she considered the consolidation efforts at the elementary and secondary levels to be a success, as was the settling of the WISE contract and renovations made to Warwick Veterans Middle School. While she was unsuccessful in her bid to win the Ward 8 seat for the City Council, she said she was now looking forward to being a private citizen again.
“I was fortunate to have worked with some great people,” she said in a text message. “Adversaries became allies and allies became adversaries. No matter what, I cast the vote I believed was for the greater good. Not always popular (like school consolidation) and not always pleasant (like layoffs), but necessary in order to move forward. I believe I know that this job was more than a job. It was a commitment to this district and to this community.”
Outgoing member Terri Medeiros likewise expressed her hopes that the new committee can continue to usher in a new era of advancement and opportunity for Warwick students.
“I am proud of the people in the community, whether it is parents, students, or staff, who realize the need for our community to move into the millennium and let go of the status quo,” she said. “Our goal should always be to equip our kids to be ready for postsecondary graduation life, which could be straight into the work force or further education. Our kids deserve the same educational opportunities as other districts.”