Following six hours spread across two public hearings Monday and Tuesday on the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s recommendation to close Aldrich and Gorton junior high schools and re-purpose Warwick Veterans Memorial High School as a super junior high, School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado expects to move forward with a vote next week.
Yesterday, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino defended the consolidation proposal, saying the committee looked at four options, including building a new single city high school at a projected cost of $120 million. He questioned if the city would support the cost of a new school.
Of the plan to re-purpose Vets, he said, “that is the best plan for the city given the available resources.”
But that’s not the way many saw it during meetings that saw as many as 600 people fill the Robert J. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center at Toll Gate High School.
Tuesday’s hearing began with the School Committee asking questions of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee.
While Furtado, Terri Medeiros and Karen Bachus deferred their time to let the public speak on the matter, Jennifer Ahearn and Eugene Nadeau questioned the long-term committee.
Ahearn wanted to know how the building ratings were achieved and why facilities were rated 2’s and 3’s, and whether NESDEC, which provided a 20-year projection of enrollments, also provides a planning and study process for district consolidation. D’Agostino, who headed the long term planning committee, explained that guidelines for building ratings were sent out by the Rhode Island State Department, data was collected by the district and sent to the state, which reviewed it and determined the ratings.
“Boilers, heating systems, roofs, electrical, lighting; it was all examined,” he said.
Regarding NESDEC, he said the company does perform studies of districts for consolidation purposes.
“A representative came to the district and we talked with them. They gave us samples of other districts, mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where they conducted similar studies with aging buildings and declining enrollment,” he said. “The proposal would have cost $150,000 to conduct a study [here], plus an additional $30,000.”
“So you already had an idea of what it would take to have an outside agency come in and do a study,” Ahearn said.
Ahearn also asked about the current average class size and how it would change with consolidation.
Impact on class size
“Currently, the average class size ranges from 14.1 to 15.3,” said Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, who was also part of the long term planning committee. He said those numbers don’t take into account weighted students or special education students. “The ratio after consolidation ranges from 18.4 to 18.6.”
With an approximate 20 percent decline in enrollment over the last 10 years, and a continued decline in the past five years, Ahearn wanted to know if test scores had risen in correlation with the smaller class sizes.
“Tests have changed over the years, but NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] scores have gone up, but not substantially,” said Dr. Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum and supervisor for music and art. “We started the NECAP in 2005 and up to now there’s been growth, at certain grade levels, in math and reading.”
Nadeau wanted to know the total number of weighted students in the Warwick school system as well as the number of students attending charter schools.
D’Agostino said there are a total of 1,700 students with IEPs [Individualized Education Program], who are counted as 1.5 students in the classroom because they require more time and attention from teachers, in the district and a total of 94 students attending charter schools.
“Don’t we then have in excess of 10,000 students in the schools,” Nadeau asked, taking into account the 1,700 weighted students.
“The state measures by the number of bodies in the classroom,” D’Agostino answered. “We have 9,313 students; that’s the number that was reported to the census.”
“Weighted students are counted for teachers in the room,” he said. “Teachers have to deal with that number.”
Nadeau said he knows enrollment numbers are declining, “but it’s not inevitable that the population will decline to zero; things go down and up, just like the stock market.”
Nadeau said he’s been involved in Warwick education for 40 years, ever since his children started at John Brown Francis.
“For 40 years I’ve been told that smaller classrooms are more beneficial because teachers can spend more time with each student to help them move on,” he said. “Teachers have a lot on their plate right now with state mandates, Common Core, Response to Intervention, the PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] test, the STARR system, coming technology, evaluations, NECAP and differentiated instruction – how much do we demand of them while they should be teaching the subjects in which they’re educated?”
Nadeau said Common Core is more difficult for the students, which is evidenced by the decreased percentage of accomplishment in areas where it’s been implemented, and will require more of teachers and administrators.
“If we’re to give students the education they deserve, then smaller rooms are to their advantage,” he said.
Nadeau said he would like to see the sixth grade moved up to each of the three current junior highs to form the middle school model, which Common Core needs to be successful, as well as full-day Kindergarten.
“That’s the primary step to be taken. We need to see what it means to parents and families,” he said. “When those two things have occurred, then we can look at the picture in Warwick, and if consolidation needs to be done, at least we’ll be prepared for it.”
David Testa, a parent and member of the long term planning committee, disagreed with Nadeau.
“You’re delaying the inevitable,” he said. “You’re just kicking the can down the road. The demographics don’t lie; it will take a long time to have 12,000 to 13,000 students in the system, if ever.”
Testa said classroom weighting is an issue the district must deal with.
“You’re talking an extra three or four, tops. Yes, that’s an increase in class size, but you have to keep the numbers in perspective,” he said.
Nadeau said he would like to delay the closing of Vets for two years.
“You’re elected to make that decision, but you will be in the same room with the same people discussing the same thing in two years,” Testa said.
Director of Elementary Education Robert Bushell said all-day kindergarten would be needed in order for students to complete Common Core.
“We’re under the gun. We need $3 million to generate the classes we need,” he said. “If we don’t have the money to support the staff for the rooms, the students will suffer.”
Nadeau said the district needs the cooperation of the unions and employees in the school department as well as the City Council in order to accomplish what needs to be done.
“There’s nothing we can’t accomplish if we put our minds to it,” he said.
Monday night’s hearing started off with a nearly 90-minute presentation from D’Agostino, Mullen and Bushell reading almost word for word the long-term committee’s report. Little new information was presented during the report, which featured all of the data the committee had been reviewing since June, including the drop in student population from it’s peak of 19,464 students in 1968 to only 9,313 today, and NESDEC projections that by 2023 the population will drop further to 8,430. D’Agostino also pointed out that the junior high schools are at 55 percent excess capacity and the high schools are roughly the same.
Much to the crowd’s displeasure, no information was displayed on the projection screen. This led to the crowd shouting out “where are the numbers?” and “where are the slides?”
In response, D’Agostino said the report had been online and individuals had ample time to review the information in its entirety and print their own copy. As the presentation continued, the crowd became more restless, shouting out that the information was being kept hidden.
One new bit of information provided by D’Agostino was that he had discussed with Vets principal Gerry Habershaw and other parties the possibility of keeping the Vets senior class together next year. However, no explanation was provided as to how.
D’Agostino also said the transition of the sixth grade to the junior highs and the start of all-day K in the district could begin as early as fall 2015, combining the change with the move of Aldrich and Gorton students to Winman Junior High and the new Vets Junior High. In an interview on Tuesday, D’Agostino said he believes that is possible by 2015.
“That’s huge,” said Furtado in an interview yesterday.
Finally at 7:44 p.m., D’Agostino completed reading the committee’s report, only to announce a PowerPoint presentation of the same data would be shown.
The crowd erupted, shouting that they had already heard it and demanded for their opportunity to speak. D’Agostino and Mullen attempted to speak over the crowd, with D’Agostino pausing to say “you’re cutting into your speaking time.” The shouting only continued. Finally, at 7:52 p.m., the public comments were able to begin with almost 50 individuals signed up.
Darlene Netcoh, head of the English department at Toll Gate and Winman, had been a constant presence at Long Term Committee meetings and she was first to share her opinion on the recommendation, which she says is filled with “fallacious figures.”
“The basic premise of the recommendation to close Vets is flawed. I spend every day in one of the schools; three schools cannot fit into two,” said Netcoh. When she heard the committee report that schools were at 50 percent capacity, she conducted her own study, going around to department heads at Toll Gate and calculating their room usage. “They are at 84 percent capacity, which is a far cry from the data the committee had.”
Netcoh argues the nature of education has changed with new programs and new technology, and believes there would be no way to educate the students of Warwick properly with increased population.
“Closing Vets and then closing Aldrich and Gorton and cramming all those kids into buildings does not a plan make,” said Netcoh, who invited anyone to take a tour of the high schools during the school day. “I’ll show you real room usage in action.”
Union argues plan wasn’t followed
President of the Warwick Teachers Union Jim Ginolfi also spoke on Monday about the fact that the committee failed to follow the School Committee’s request from last May.
“I think it really needs to be emphasized that the School Committee’s motion is not being followed,” said Ginolfi. “They didn’t produce three viable plans.”
Ginolfi referenced the School Committee meeting minutes from the May 14 meeting where Bachus made a motion that the Long Term Committee regroup and come back in January 2014 with “three viable plans, not one.”
“Read the summary. They were given a different charge. They have not presented you with three plans. They need to go back and start all over again,” said Ginolfi.
Following Nadeau’s comments on Tuesday, public comments resumed. Furtado said 75 people signed up to speak Tuesday, which began with the list of names of those who signed up to speak Monday but didn’t get the chance.
Vets senior Stephen Dennis said he feels the odds have been stacked against Vets from the beginning, calling the long-term committee “unfair and biased.”
“My brother will be in ninth grade next year. Grades 7 through 12 are an important part of your life because that’s where you find and mold yourself and I don’t want my brother molded anywhere else,” he said.
In response to the fact that the district could save money by avoiding fire code upgrades at Aldrich and Gorton if they were to close, Dennis said he found it sad that it takes a school closing to address such issues.
“The School Committee has made the Warwick education system a bit laughable,” he said. “I’m proud of my town. I’ve talked to many adults and asked for advice on what I need to do to be successful, and I find it disheartening that I’m told to get out of Warwick and get of Rhode Island, but I’m finding it more convincing.”
Vets Chorus teacher Nancy Kennedy also expressed her feelings that the recommendation is “demoralizing” to students and faculty and has been a distraction since it was announced in October.
“I don’t get thrown much, but this is throwing me,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy added that she believes the recommendation should have been crafted with outside experts, multiple plans should have been created with input from each school’s administration, the public should have been allowed to give input for “months not minutes,” and the ultimate decision should be left up to the voters.
Where’s the savings?
Michael Pierce, a parent and teacher at Gorton, said consolidation is not about saving money.
“If you look at the numbers, busing costs are more than the savings in operating costs,” he said. “The savings are $4 million in staffing cuts, so let’s call it what it is; cutting teachers, increasing class sizes and losing neighborhood schools. You could keep the schools open, cut the same amount of staff and save more money.”
Pierce said it was astounding that no one has mentioned the fact consolidation would be taking place during the same year the district implements the PARCC test, which he described as “the most difficult assessment ever taken.”
One concerned parent, Bob Savage, questioned why the committee did not look at professional studies that say smaller high schools with 600 to 900 students are optimal for success. “You didn’t hear anyone talk about studies,” said Savage. “Why haven’t we heard anything from the committee regarding studies of what the best-size high school is?”
Peter Stone, a Warwick teacher and parent of a daughter at Aldrich, suggested cuts in administrative positions to find savings instead of closing schools. He proposed one assistant superintendent (not two); a secretary instead of a director to oversee transportation, which has been privatized, similar to food service; one supervisor for English language arts, math and science (not two); and one director of information services (not three).
“That should be enough to save the schools,” he said.
George Landrie, a teacher at Toll Gate who has also taught at Gorton and Aldrich, said he was disappointed the long-term committee only presented one plan instead of three, as requested.
“This raises too many issues to talk about in three minutes, so I’m just going to focus on class size,” he said. “This flies in the face of all the research done on class size, which says that smaller sizes provide better teacher-student ratios, teachers are more engaged with students, the curriculum and content gets covered, it impacts students’ creativity, and helps to close achievement gaps,” he said, adding larger class sizes will adversely affect student dropout rate. “Parents and teachers want what’s best for their children and smaller class sizes will deliver instruction at the optimum level; that’s not in this plan.”
Testa reiterated school population has been on a slow and steady decline, saying projections show a 40 percent decline in 20 years.
“You can employ past practices and avoid it, or you can do something about it,” he said. “Closing Gorton and Aldrich saves over $2 million by avoiding fire code upgrades, and the new class sizes won’t differ from what they were a few years ago.”
Testa said the district must start providing all-day Kindergarten, the middle school model and update modern technology, all while continuing to be level-funded by the city.
“The City Council criticizes the school department whenever schools are consolidated, but at budget time, they exact a pound of flesh,” he said.
City Council President Donna Travis, who was in attendance with fellow council members Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Ed Ladoucer, said the council can only give the school department a number when it comes to the budget.
“For years I’ve been saying get more books, fix the mold in the schools. They don’t fix your schools, but they can give out raises,” she said angrily. “The taxpayers want their garbage picked up and their streets plowed, but most importantly they want a good education for their children. They should have gotten an outside agency to do this study.”
Vella-Wilkinson admitted the council has level-funded schools but said when the council gets the budget from the schools, it can only approve or disapprove it.
“If there’s a surplus on the city side, that goes back into the general fund,” she said. “What’s happening to the surplus in the schools? They hired another six-figure administrator that, with benefits, comes to $130,000. That was on a wish list. You know what’s on my wish list? I wish the science teacher wasn’t running through the halls with a wagon because he doesn’t have a room; I wish for a full-time librarian; I wish for the teachers we have at Vets and Gerry Habershaw, who is a tremendous leader; but I really wish that when Karen Bachus asked for two or three long-range plans, that we received that.”
Ladoucer said he didn’t believe anyone could make a decision based on the information that’s been presented.
“What I’ve heard is subjective, not objective. There’s no reports from engineers or from professionals on the conditions of the athletic fields,” he said. “Have you met with the teachers? Have you asked them what they need? How will this affect students?”
Brendan Friel, a 2002 Vets graduate and current teacher, said while technology advancements are good, it can be dangerous to focus solely on technology.
“Warwick has been able to provide opportunities like literacy and math labs and Response to Intervention; these are doable because of the smaller class sizes, which have resulted in higher test scores and lower dropout rates,” he said. “If we consolidate, yes we could save money and we may get wifi and improved technology, but what opportunities are we taking away? To save money and increase technology is a step in the right direction, but it will limit the opportunities we’ve gained in the past couple of years with lower numbers.”
Kayleigh Nedow, a sixth grader at Robertson, said it will be difficult to leave her school because of the relationships she’s developed there.
“The smaller classes have helped me become who I am,” she said, before criticizing the long-term committee. “The numbers you calculated are inflated by 30 to 40 percent. I noticed a flaw in your calculations; you’re not taking into account that ALP, which count as two, and IEP, which count as one and a half, students require extra time from the content teacher.”
Kayleigh said consolidation would result in increased poor NECAP scores and have a negative impact on teacher certification.
“How is this fair? I’m an excellent student and I deserve to continue to be one,” she said. “We should not have more pressure put on us due to a quick decision that we don’t agree with. This decision will affect our emotional and social well-being.”
Echoing Kayleigh’s comments, Vets senior Jonathan Nordin said, “You’re asking us to raise our grades when we’re entering a building where we are being bullied. All the evidence is on social media.”
Mary Iadevaia, the parent of a junior at Vets, summarized the effect this recommendation is having on students in the schools during her comments.
“What about such things as class ranking, class rings, school colors, classroom sizes, honor classes, Leadership Academy and athletics? All of these are significant student issues, and more, contribute to the identity of each high school student,” said Iadevaia.
She also said that the recommendation needed community involvement according to the Schoolhouse Assessment’s recommendation and the students are not being properly informed for their future.
“The closing of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School deserves singular and serious attention and should not be a line item in plans for all-day kindergarten and grades six through eight middle schools. This is a plan without a plan for our students and children,” said Iadevaia.
Many audience members later expressed their anger on social media sites that School Committee members were on their phones or computers and having side conversations while the public was making their comments.
“We had to say we would be respectful,” said Monica Chadwick during her comments. “I would think you would give us the same respect by not having side conversations and using your cell phones.”
Although the School Committee could have voted to extend the Tuesday hearing an extra hour, to 10:30 p.m., the meeting was adjourned shortly after 9:30, leaving a number of people that signed up to speak unable to do so.
Yesterday, Furtado said she is confident the right decision will be made, adding that all 15 members of the long-term committee agreed consolidation was necessary and she believes a silent majority agrees.
Support for consolidation
“On Monday and Tuesday the majority of calls and emails were in support of consolidation,” said Furtado. “I was elected to represent everyone in my district.”
Furtado explained that she has been following the process and reviewing the information regarding school consolidation for years and that this idea is not new. She said she has been speaking with and asking questions to members of the long-term committee as well as the public for a while and is ready to move forward.
“I’ll make a statement, but I’ve asked my questions. I’ve done my homework,” said Furtado. “I’ve got to do what the majority of the people who elected me want me to do. There’s no reason to drag this out further.”
Furtado knows the hearings were emotional and the discussion to close a school is always emotional, but to delay a decision like this for another few years will only cause more problems if population decreases but the cost of salaries, benefits and operating buildings continues to go up.
“Tomorrow never comes. You have to do it today. We can’t afford to operate these buildings,” she said. “Everything goes up, but the money we get based on population is going to go down.”
Furtado said the savings will allow the district to provide the same programming across the board and would benefit the entire city.
“The entire city is a community. It’s for the best of the city,” she said. “They say it’s about money. No, it’s about education.”
Furtado said the next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. Although the agenda will be made official today, she expected a vote on school consolidation to be on it.