School administrators defended the recommendation to close Gorton Junior High School as a cost-saving measure that will help address the needs of all students yesterday at a joint meeting of the short- and long-term committees studying school facilities.
The two groups voted to accept and forward the recommendation, which was reached last week by the short-term panel, to the School Committee. The vote was 8-7, with two abstentions.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino explained that it is now for the School Committee to schedule a hearing before taking action on the recommendation.
About 70 people attended the meeting held in the Robert J. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center at Toll Gate High School. A contingent of parents, students and teachers to save Gorton sat in the rear of the auditorium, respectfully holding signs and applauding occasionally when they agreed with points made during the discussion.
Long-term committee member Jackie Harris-Connor questioned whether the recommendation was a hasty decision.
“I don’t think it was fully researched as to the impact on curriculum,” she said. She asked why it is necessary to close the school now and asked couldn’t it wait for further study.
D’Agostino assured, “it’s not a hasty decision.” He said the facilities committee has been looking at the numbers for two years. He spoke of the need to downsize as school enrollment declines and of demands on school revenues.
“We have other things we need to do in the district,” he said. Not addressing the drop in enrollment, he said, would be a disservice to the students and the taxpayers.
Closing the school, he said, would help provide the district with the tolls so students can be successful.
“We should have done this two years ago,” he said.
Throughout the 45-minute discussion, committee members sought answers as to why Gorton was chosen over Aldrich as the school to close and whether closing either school at this time might preclude the conversion to a middle school model – grades 6-8 – in the future.
D’Agostino said Gorton was selected because the school has an enrollment of 411 students as compared to Aldrich’s 517, meaning fewer students would be displaced.
School administrators also refuted speculation that the department would be required to move to an all-day kindergarten requiring the inclusion of 6th graders in junior highs so as to gain the classroom space in elementary schools.
While D’Agostino acknowledged there is legislation for all-day kindergarten, there isn’t the funding and from his contacts, there is not likely to be the state funds to implement the program.
“All-day K is not in the near future,” he said. He thought that wouldn’t happen for another four or five years.
Robert Bushell, director of elementary education, observed that the system already has five all-day K classes and that the department would move to more in situations where a school’s kindergarten population is 23 or less. He put the cost of hiring additional teachers and teacher aides to staff an all-day K system at more than $3 million.
Still, there were questions whether the system would be making a decision that it would later regret.
Committee member David Testa said with closure of Gorton, Aldrich and Winman would have a combined “weighted” capacity of 2,217 students. Students with an individual education plan or IEP are considered weighted and can count as much as two students when determining classroom size.
“This puts the middle school model off for years,” he said. He questioned whether students would be shortchanged as a result.
Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen disagreed. He said projections show a steady decline in enrollment following a “slight bump” in junior high enrollment next year.
He said he is not opposed to the middle school model, but to conclude that students are being shortchanged because Warwick doesn’t have the system would be a fallacy.
He said the schools are meeting the common core state standards and “we’re doing it right now without a middle school.”
Asked about the financial gains of closing a school – the projection is an operating savings of about $1.2 million – school business director Anthony Ferrucci said it is fortunate that the system had a $2.8 million surplus last year as it has enabled schools to carry forward. He said $1 million of those savings came from the operation of the school’s old special education buses when First Student took over the contract. Those savings won’t be there next year, nor does he expect another surplus.
“If it’s a question of chairs and walls versus student programming, I have to advocate we don’t want to hurt the students,” he said.
Following the dismissal of the short-term committee members, the long-term committee began their meeting regarding what factors should be addressed when forming a long-term plan for the district. However, there was a great deal of confusion from the remaining committee members as to the future of the recommendation to close Gorton.
Bushell attempted to explain to the group that the long-term committee would now shift its focus to plans for other, older buildings within the district and the configuration of grades within the schools, but the recommendation to close Gorton quickly returned to the forefront.
“My feeling is that we just made a massive decision regarding Gorton,” said Catherine Benang. “Is this committee part of that decision or is that it? It’s decided.”
D’Agostino addressed the question by explaining that the approved report would move onto the School Committee for review. Should the School Committee approve the report, they would call for a public hearing so parents, teachers and other taxpayers could hear the information and voice their opinions.
The question was also raised as to the future of the short-term committee.
Mullen explained that the full committee would now serve as an advisory for the School Committee.
“I think we still play a vital role in terms of providing information,” he said.