On Tuesday afternoon, School Superintendent Richard D’Agostino called on the long term facilities planning committee to develop a realistic vision of what the school system should look like in the future, taking into consideration declining enrollment, aging buildings and the prospect that the city administration is not likely to approve funding for new schools.
Tuesday’s meeting, the first since the School Committee rejected a sub-committee recommendation to close Gorton Junior High School until at least next year, was noticeably low key and reflective as members sought to understand what they were being asked to do and the boundaries of their work. Fourteen of the planning committee’s 19 members met in front of an audience of 10 and the meeting, scheduled for an hour, was over in about 50 minutes.
But if history is a guide, the committee’s work will move to center stage when it focuses on what schools could be consolidated and proposals such as all-day kindergarten and configuration of schools by classes that could result in the closing of one or more secondary schools. In the mix, too, was the suggestion of committee member Edward Racca that the group look at a 9-12 vocational-technical school offering students a “home school.” Presently, students attend classes at the Warwick Career and Technical Center beginning in grade 10 but are enrolled in one of the city’s three high schools. Racca reasoned the range of classes offered at the center is extensive and provides students the training to enter the workforce, if not further pursue their studies at an institution of higher learning.
Seemingly beyond the scope of the committee is the curriculum to be offered by school districts. Presently, the city is divided into three districts, with elementary schools feeding into one of three junior highs and those junior highs feeding into three senior highs.
Why districts are beyond the purview of the committee baffled member David Testa. He observed that closing a secondary school would alter the feeder system.
But two points made clear by the administration is that Warwick needs all-day kindergarten; and that, with a declining school-aged population, the system is spending money keeping buildings open that could be spent on improving education.
“Full-day K, we can’t give that up. We need that in our schools and to me that’s a high priority,” said Robert Bushell, director of elementary education.
Bushell has long said incorporating all-day K would cost about $3 million for teachers and teacher assistants. On Tuesday, however, he thought there are ways to reduce that cost, if children were moved out of their neighborhood district. As an example, he said Holliman School has the space to accommodate kindergarteners from Wyman, John Brown Francis and Norwood Schools. This would require hiring one additional teacher and assistant rather than four of each.
Testa said, in a perfect world, everyone has a neighborhood school, but that is not practical and “what we have to do here is not going to make someone happy.”
Bushell left no doubt that is going to have to happen. He pointed out that, not all that long ago, each of the city’s elementary schools had about 1,100 students and today those numbers are between 700 and 800. He said class sizes in Warwick are very good, with an average of 18 in elementary school and 17 in junior high.
“But, can we afford to live with that kind of number?” he asked.
“Vision” was also questioned.
“Are you looking for real vision or what is reality?” asked member Patti Nazareth.
D’Agostino noted that, in earlier meetings, member Stephanie Van Patten called on the committee to consider a new super high school that would consolidate all three existing schools. While that could be desirable educationally, D’Agostino did not think a $100 million bond issue would be realistic.
“The city will never authorize that bonding,” ventured Testa.
Yet doing nothing, which would require millions of dollars in upgrades to Gorton and Aldrich Junior High, is not an option for Bushell.
“It’s looking us right in the face. To spend all that money to repair those buildings [just] to close them down, that’s a sin,” he said.
Member and Norwood Principal Nancy Plumb urged the committee to look at factors affecting the city.
“The future of the city needs to be looked at,” she said.
She questioned what sections of the city might experience growth. School Business Affairs Director Anthony Ferrucci suggested the committee not overlook future airport plans and how the loss of homes to expansion could affect the system.
“You need to factor that piece in,” he said.
Also mentioned was the possible acquisition of vacant New England Institute of Technology buildings for a super elementary school, which D’Agostino did not reject, and conversion of the high schools to incorporate grades 7 and 8. There was little mention of the middle school model where grades 6, 7 and 8 would be in a single school. The possible conversion to middle schools was an argument for keeping Gorton open while enabling the closing of elementary schools.
D’Agostino said a smaller committee would be more manageable and efficient. He removed three administrative members of the committee and suggested non-school members of the committee likewise reduce their numbers.
If there was a consensus, it was that the committee needs to think long-range and it would be a mistake if, after a couple of years, the system was again wrestling with the future.
The next meeting is scheduled for July 11 at 11 a.m.
James Ginolfi, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, who was not at the meeting, questioned why a meeting was scheduled at 11 a.m. when it would be difficult for the public to attend.
“Is this going to be another sham,” he asked. “Is this going to be more of the same?”
Ginolfi attributed part of the adverse reaction to the proposal to close Gorton to the administration’s “lack of transparency.”
D’Agostino wants to have recommendations for the School Committee by Jan. 14, 2014.