Tuesday night in a surprise decision, the School Committee unanimously voted to table a vote on the recommendation to re-purpose Warwick Veterans Memorial High School as a junior high and close Aldrich and Gorton Junior Highs in favor of bringing in an outside consulting firm to look at the district in its entirety and recommend a viable plan for the future of the district.
More than 600 people filled the Robert J. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center at Toll Gate High School to learn the fate of Vets High School. The meeting was scheduled to start with the vote on the Long Term Facility Planning Committee’s recommendation for consolidation, but School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado announced fellow committee member Karen Bachus would present a motion instead.
Bachus said she requested a motion following the last committee hearing that the vote be tabled and a “long-term facilities planning consolidation of schools company” be hired to look at the district, and present a plan for five, 10, 15 and 20 years out.
“What should we do? How should we consolidate? Should we look to build a new building? What are the needs of our district from a bigger, wider perspective and what should we be looking to do down the line,” said Bachus.
She also summarized why she felt an outside consultant was necessary for this plan.
“We only get one chance at this folks. Life is not a dress rehearsal. And if we mess this up, we can mess up countless futures for countless youth and children in this city and in this school system,” said Bachus. “We could also destroy this school system because there is a great possibility that a lot of people would leave Warwick to move to another area, that people would chose private schools, that we would get overrun for requests for youths to go to charter schools, which could really bankrupt the system.”
Bachus also mentioned she had been told by Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Villa-Wilkinson that a member of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee had revealed to Vella-Wilkinson, Council President Donna Travis and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur that the report had actually been written in January and the committee had just been flushing out the plan to make sure it would work. While she never said directly that this revelation played into her decision to bring in outside consultants, Bachus did point out that if that is true, the report was written before she even requested it in May.
Furtado amended Bachus’ motion to include the request that the School Department go to bid with specific recommendations about issues that had come up during the proceedings and that whichever company is chosen comes back with a viable plan for secondary school consolidation. Bachus then amended Furtado’s amendment, requesting the consultant to examine the district in its entirety (secondary and elementary).
“I don’t want just a consolidation committee. I want a committee that is going to look at the future of teaching and learning of education in this city,” said Bachus. “I want the whole enchilada, the whole package.”
While most appeared ecstatic with the decision, Furtado was not.
“I am furious,” said Furtado yesterday. “I was realistic and conscious of the fact that this was not going to go through, so the worst of two evils was to give them what they wanted.”
Furtado explained that had a vote on the re-purposing occurred, it would have failed 3-2, with she and committee member Terri Medeiros in favor of consolidation.
Now it is up to Furtado to find a way to pay for an outside consultant to examine the district, something she estimates will cost at least six figures.
“Where am I going to have to get that money? From the classroom, from the kids. I hope they are happy,” said Furtado. “They are choosing location over education … what programs do they want me to cut to cover the money?”
Furtado explained that she believed the Long Term Committee’s recommendation to be true and accurate, and was ready to move forward with the plan; but her fellow committee members did not agree, so she decided to show a united front and vote in favor of the motion.
“My belief is that they [outside consultants] will come to the same conclusion that this volunteer committee did, that consolidation is possible and necessary,” said Furtado.
As for a timeline, Furtado said the School Committee has requested that the School Department put out the bid request immediately and she believes interested companies have 30 days to apply. It is her hope that the company be selected by mid-February, they begin their work immediately and provide their findings by the spring or summer. She hopes to have the final plan approved by fall 2014.
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn ended up being the member to second Bachus’ motion and would have been the third vote against consolidation had it been taken. She explained she believed the plan needed to include more about the delivery of instruction and not just buildings.
“I did feel as though we need an outside opinion as far as implementation of education,” said Ahearn, adding that she hopes the consultant brings a number of different options the committee could look at in terms of education. “I didn’t feel the delivery of education was addressed enough [in this plan]. It’s all about instruction.”
Ahearn researched what other school districts throughout the country have done and said that played into her desire to see more details.
“I really want to target all of our options,” said Ahearn.
However, she also knows the numbers and understands consolidation needs to happen down the road.
“I do believe we need to look at letting go of some of our buildings,” she said. “We have the space to move the kids around. This has to happen.”
Ahearn also said she hopes the committee is able to move forward quickly and that they will be able to come together with the unions to make progress in the district.
Committee member Eugene Nadeau was vocal about his issue with the speed in which the Vets consolidation plan was to occur. He was equally vocal in expressing his support of Bachus’ motion to bring in professionals.
“I am pleased that her motion passed. I think it’s the best thing,” said Nadeau, saying he thought the proposed plan would be “disruptive” to the district.
It is his hope that the middle school model and all-day K will be implemented before any consolidation occurs, something he believes is the best thing for the district and a necessary move with the Common Core standards coming down next year.
During public comment at the meeting, it was suggested that the company chosen to come in and look at the district be from out of state, something Nadeau also feels would be best. He said it would be best to find a company that has worked with a district of similar size and demographics before to see if they can suggest something new.
What happens to committee?
Although the School Committee members may differ in their opinions about the recommendation, the one thing they agree on is their appreciation for the 15 members of the Long Range Planning Committee, most of who had been working on this process for two years since the committee was formed by a former superintendent.
“They are highly respected. They have the integrity we deserve,” said Nadeau, adding that the School Committee will likely look at both reports when making their final decision in the future.
Although she essentially called for the end of the Long Term Committee, Bachus also only had kind words to say.
“I thank you for your service. You have done well. We thank you. The committee should now be closed,” said Bachus.
Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian also thanked the committee for their service in a statement.
“I think we owe a great deal of thanks to the members of that committee – all volunteers – who looked at the situation, toured the buildings, and made suggestions. Suggesting change is never easy and I want to make sure that the members of the committee are not vilified. In particular, Nancy Plumb and Lynn Dambruch added this duty to their already difficult schedule as principals in two of our elementary schools,” said Avedisian.
Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino also praised his fellow committee members.
“They’ve gone beyond what is expected of volunteers,” said D’Agostino. “We’re united in that. We stand behind the work we’ve done and the data we’ve collected.”
D’Agostino also said he and the other committee members welcome outside consultants.
“It’s fine,” said D’Agostino about the motion. “We welcome an outside company to come in and examine the data. It’s not that their data was in error.”
He added that the consultants may even come to the same conclusion and validate the work done by the committee.
Committee members Ed Racca and Dave Testa were also fine with the new plan.
“I’m fine with consultants, but I wish they had voted on the recommendation. It’s process for me,” said Testa. “Reject it, that’s fine.”
“We put the best plan together we could in the time we had,” said Racca.
They also spoke to the idea of simply moving the sixth grade up to the junior high without closing schools; Testa says that will not solve the problem of declining student population.
“Your population still declines; you’ve just rearranged the deck chairs,” said Testa.
Cheers for Vets
Following some confusion regarding amendments to amendments, Furtado finally announced that the vote to re-purpose Vets would be tabled and the crowd erupted into applause, chants of “Vets” and cheers for Bachus. The majority of the crowd filed out of the auditorium to share congratulations with one another before heading home.
Joe Iadevaia, a parent who had spoken against the re-purposing during public hearings, was very happy with the results.
“Karen has been a leader. I’m sure she had a lot to say,” said Iadevaia. “I’m sure the committee did the right thing.”
He is happy that a professional will now be coming in to look at things and believes a better plan will come of it.
“I certainly don’t want to prejudge anything. We’ll have to see how it goes,” said Iadevaia when asked how he would react if the professionals come back with the same recommendation to close schools. “The most important thing is the children. I’ll be open-minded and listen.”
Those breathing the largest sigh of relief were current students at Vets.
“It’s like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders,” said Frankie Medeiros, a junior. “I’m so excited. We get to be captains. We can be with our family and not worry.”
“We got up and looked at each other and started crying,” said Kaitlyn Rhodes, who was happy to spend her senior year at Vets with her teammates from soccer, laughing that all she has to worry about now is a championship with the Hurricanes.
“It was nail-biting when we first sat in there,” said Ashley Spellman, a junior. “Next year is going to be our senior year. I can’t imagine doing our senior projects at another school with more kids.”
Even though they said they would be more open-minded about the plan from the professionals outside of the system, if the recommendation ends up being to close Vets, they will be back. “I think we’d still be fighting because it’s our school,” said Spellman.
President of the Warwick Teachers Union Jim Ginolfi had criticized the recommendation for not including three plans as requested in the School Committee’s original motion and believed the plan was flawed. He says bringing in professionals is the right choice.
“I think it’s great news. They’re going to do it the right way, to look at it all, K through 12,” said Ginolfi. “My hope would be, just like the original motion by the School Committee, that they come in with a motion of at least three viable plans.”
When asked what he would think if the professionals suggest closing schools, Ginolfi said it would depend on the details but it is too early to tell that.
Avedisian, who has refrained from giving input on the matter of school consolidation, did address the decision made by the committee in an email to the Beacon yesterday.
“I understand that some people have questioned the numbers from the very beginning. So I think that Chairwoman Furtado made the right call to have independent sets of eyes look at the numbers and the work of the Long Range Planning Committee,” he said.
When asked if the city would provide more funding to schools, Avedisian said it is too early to tell.
“It is too early to think about what kind of budget the city would support. I think it will again depend on what programming the School Committee wants to focus on. I know that there is strong sentiment for all-day kindergarten and the transformation from junior high school to middle school,” he said.
While people at the meeting were pleased with the results, others vented their frustration with the plan on the Beacon’s Facebook post announcing the results.
“So more waiting, more money NOT going to the school, more activities and programs will get cut and the vicious cycle continues. What an embarrassment,” wrote Tami Welchman Ward.
“I wonder what programs will be cut next year as the inevitable gets kicked down the road? It if cuts into athletics, I am sure we will hear a much greater cry than when it was a librarian and ALAP,” said Kathy O’Grady Ogni.
“What a waste of taxpayers money! The student population has been declining for years and so should the tangible buildings that educate these kids! They are just buildings and it is not that building that makes the education or the memories. It is the students, the educators, the administration, the coaches and the events! The big picture should be in the forefront of this decision and the big picture is bringing our education system up to date with technology and topnotch processes. What a shame,” wrote Michele Cahill.
The rumor mill
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, there had been a number of rumors circulating throughout the city about backhanded deals regarding the vote for school consolidation. Avedisian chose to address some of those rumors. In regards to Vets supporters disrupting last week’s Christmas tree lighting, protests at City Hall or threats to confront the mayor on his personal time, Avedisian said all of those things did not happen. He said Vets supporters were at the tree lighting, but said they were not disruptive.
“They were actually intrigued to learn that the mayor does not control the School Committee and School Department. They seemed surprised to learn I do not hire or fire school department personnel, etc,” said Avedisian.
There was another rumor that Avedisian had promised Furtado’s son a job as a firefighter in the city should the recommendation pass.
“First of all, the new independent testing and screening that we follow does not allow anyone to promise a job. But, for the record, I did check with Chiefs Armstrong and Cooley and there were no candidates with the surname of Furtado to take the test,” said Avedisian.
Finally, the mayor said rumors that the consolidation was only being done to “get rid of” Principal Gerry Habershaw “could not be further from the truth.” According to the mayor, he had spoken with Furtado, urging her to find an administrative position for Habershaw had the recommendation passed.
During public comment following Tuesday’s meeting, Vella-Wilkinson had plenty to say about the rumors spread throughout this process.
“I was ashamed to think that individuals couldn’t stick to the truth, stick to the facts and instead they would smear the reputations of individuals who have taken time away from their families to serve the city of Warwick,” said Vella-Wilkinson. “And I will apologize for any of my constituents who did that to you or to the committee. I think it was Warwick’s worst moment. I’m very sorry for that.”