A group of Warwick Vets graduates, students and parents rallied in front of the school yesterday evening in hopes of keeping the school a high school.
Lifelong Warwick resident Gary Costantino, who graduated in 2005, organized the event. There were nearly 50 people in attendance 20 minutes after it began.
“There are probably going to be more,” said Costantino at press time.
People were clad in blue, gold and white, the school’s signature colors, while Slanomir Hermanowski, held a sign that read, “Save Vets.” Cars and trucks honked their horns, as a DJ played music, offering a microphone to guests in between songs so they could speak about why they think Vets should stay open as a high school.
“This is so wrong,” Costantino said during an earlier interview. “They need to do away with this committee and hire an outside company with zero ties. As a taxpayer, I would feel a lot more comfortable with a professional committee with zero ties.”
On a 13-2 vote last week, the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) recommended to close Vets at the end of the 2014 academic year and re-open as a junior high in the fall of 2015. The plan would close Aldrich and Gorton, with those students attending the new Vets junior high and Winman.
Costantino said he believes a “shady deal” has taken place. He thinks Superintendent Richard D’Agostino is telling members how to vote.
“This is about one person controlling everyone else,” Costantino said. “He’s a puppet master. It’s a conflict of interest because they are not going to go against something that their superintendent or boss wants. They shouldn’t be in the positions they’re in. I would bet my house that there is so much backdoor politics going on. If the facts are there, they’re there, but this committee should not be making this decision. There are too many conflicts of interest.”
D’Agostino said that’s not the case at all. He pointed out that the LTFPC was in place before he accepted the position as superintendent, and he kept the same committee because they are knowledgeable about the district, as well as the issues concerning declining populations and conditions of the buildings.
“They were appointed by the former superintendent,” said D’Agostino, noting that while the accusations are not true, he understands why some people are upset. “This is the same committee that voted 8-7 in regards to closing Gorton. These are the same people that looked at the data that we’ve presented over the course of six months. Everything was done in the open. It was all transparent. I have no control over them. Everybody voted their own way.”
Costantino also questions whether the committee performed an in-depth study on the impact it may have on students. He hopes they will present additional data that backs up their decision.
“There weren’t enough facts and evaluations done for them to just up and decide to close the school,” he said. “It doesn’t sit well with me. It happened too fast and without enough facts. This is a decision that should take years, not months.”
Travis Babcock, who graduated from Vets in 2012, agrees. He called out of work to attend the rally.
“This is a decision that should be made with years of planning and actual statistical data put on public record for the community to see that backs up the ‘statistics’ the LTFPC is using,” said Babcock. “This is a poor decision that I feel has not been thought through.”
The LTFPC has been meeting since June to determine which of the three high schools should be closed. Factors that contributed to last week’s recommendation included location, special programs, possible future use of each facility as a junior high, finances, and building quality, such as structural and cosmetic issues.
D’Agostino, along with School Committee member Terri Medeiros, said it is a decision that has certainly been thought through. They’ve referenced an extensive amount of data, which indicates declining enrollment. Moving toward consolidation, said D’Agostino, isn’t something they are taking lightly.
“The data is live, meaning that we are using the existing numbers in schools today,” he said. “All three highs schools right now are below 1,000. Vets is very close to going under 900 students.”
While Vets has a population of 914, Toll Gate and Pilgrim are at 959 and 992, respectively. Medeiros wanted to remind people that Vets is not closing, rather it’s going be re-purposed. Still, she knows change is not easy to accommodate.
“We have to hear that the kids might have to move, and that throws a kink in everybody’s life,” she said. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop. I wish our population wasn’t going down. People just aren’t having as many kids anymore and people aren’t moving to New England anymore because of the cost of living. I wish we weren’t economically strapped.”
D’Agostino feels the same. However, he said the change is necessary.
“When you have buildings that are running at 45 percent capacity, it makes it very difficult to continue running them,” he said. “And not having the resources to do the repairs that are needed to make improvements in those buildings [is also a factor.]”
At last week’s meeting, D’Agostino said improvements at Pilgrim could be done during a summer, while Vets needs a new roof, elevator, boiler and more. He said the enhancements would take at least a year to complete.
Costantino believes D’Agostino is using repairs as a poor excuse. But D’Agostino said there are additional reasons.
During a previous meeting, D’Agostino noted that since Vets is located in the middle of the city, while Toll Gate is in the southern part and Pilgrim is in the north, Vets is in an ideal spot for junior high students who would have gone to Gorton or Aldrich.
Costantino worries about the effect it will have on students of all three junior high schools, and claims he would be rallying if they recommended closing Pilgrim or Toll Gate without doing a proper study.
“I’d be doing the same thing for any of the other schools,” he said. “It could ruin their lives. You’re separating them from their friends. Kids are going to be forced to move into a different environment, and an uncomfortable environment at that. You’re going to force a lot of families to send their kids to private schools.”
Costantino, along with Babcock, pointed out that many teachers would lose their jobs, not to mention impact student athletes.
“More kids will be cut from sports teams,” Babcock said. “And speaking from experience, sports … kept me in school. I know I’m not the only one that falls into that category.”
Costantino also wonders if the change would have a negative impact on local business, as he said parents, students and teachers won’t be in the area during the time the school is closed before re-opening as a junior high.
“I feel like our side of the city is getting targeted because we are the lowest income part of the city,” said Costantino. “I’m here to take a stand. I’m going to fight this tooth and nail. It’s ridiculous and discouraging.”
Costantino said he planned the rally as a means to enlighten people about the situation.
“I want to show the School Department and the School Committee what Warwick Vets means to the city,” Costantino said.
D’Agostino said he is compassionate to Costantino and others who are upset. He also said closing or re-purposing a school is nothing new to the city, as Aldrich and Gorton were former high schools, as was Lockwood, which is now used for condominiums.
“How did those students feel when their schools were changed into junior high schools?” D’Agostino said. “Out of 31 elementary schools in the past 40 years, 16 have been closed because of our declining population. I feel bad that we have a declining enrollment in our city, and I feel bad that it’s coming to a point where we have to close one of the buildings.”