Four candidates are in the running for two at-large Warwick School Committee seats, and on Thursday night they convened to answer questions during a candidate forum hosted by the Beacon.
Jennifer Townsen-Ahearn, Karen Bachus, incumbent Patrick Maloney and David Testa fielded questions from both the Beacon and student government heads from each of the three high schools. Present on the panel were Bianca Cappelli, a senior from Warwick Vets, Tyler Inkley, a senior from Toll Gate, Victoria Curley, a junior from Pilgrim, and the Beacon’s Kim Kalunian. John Howell served as moderator. Candidates also heard from several members of the audience.
About 60 attended the forum at the Buttonwoods Community Center, including acting Superintendent Richard D’Agostino, committee chair Bethany Furtado, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson and independent Ward 7 candidate William Russo.
The hot-button issues of the debate were superintendent Peter Horoschak’s administrative leave and the abrupt changes to the senior project mentor policy.
“It’s the biggest question I’ve gotten over the last two to three weeks,” said Maloney about Horoschak’s suspension. Maloney would not divulge any information on why the superintendent was put on administrative leave, or what the next step will be.
“It’s a personnel issue,” he said.
Maloney said D’Agostino was doing a great job. Maloney said he would not discuss the Horoschak issue any further.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate to ask that question,” he said. Cappelli voiced the question.
Bachus sided with Maloney, citing it as a private personnel issue, while Ahearn said the department should begin a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. Testa sat on the fence, saying the public had a right to know but the individuals involved had a right to privacy. He noted that because of Horoschak’s three-year contract, two superintendents were getting paid at the same time.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Testa, calling the situation “messy.”
The candidates also had the chance to sound off on the recent decision to eliminate face-to-face mentor meetings from Warwick’s senior projects.
“It disturbs me greatly,” said Bachus, who said the decision puts students at a “horrible disadvantage.”
The decision to eliminate the component of the senior project came in light of a new law that requires all mentors to undergo federal and state background checks. The department told students on Oct. 1 that all face-to-face contact with their mentors would stop.
“I don’t believe it will be successful without a mentor,” Bachus said of the projects. She suggested that the BCIs could have been paid for out of the school department’s surplus. Ahearn said she had wondered the same thing, but ultimately the time constraints would have hindered the process.
Testa said the students got “stiffed” by the new policy, but that ultimately the decision to stop the meetings between students and mentors was right.
“The liability was huge,” he said, saying that as a taxpayer he would not want to shoulder the burden of a successful lawsuit.
Both Testa and Ahearn agreed that, going forward, changes had to be made to the senior project in order to make it less dependent on mentors and still as beneficial to the students’ senior experience. Maloney said the current School Committee is evaluating the system they have in place now, but agreed that future evaluations are necessary.
Testa then turned the tables, and asked the students on the panel for their opinions on the abrupt senior project changes.
Cappelli said she had to tweak her project slightly, since her mentor was a teacher. Bianca said she will still do the community service portion of her senior project independently, since she had already committed to it.
Tyler Inkley completed his project over the summer, so he was not directly impacted by the change of policy. He did, however, share a story of a classmate who was supposed to learn how to shoe a horse.
“I don’t think that’s really safe to do without a mentor,” he said with a smile. Instead, his classmate will learn to braid the horse’s mane.
Regardless of the fact that he has already completed his requirements, Inkley said seeing the impacts on the bulk of his class have made things hectic around campus.
“It’s just added stress to an already stressful year,” he said.
Another area that raised concern from the candidates was that of high-stakes NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] testing, and how it played in to this year’s school classifications.
A question regarding the accuracy of the “typical” and “warning” ratings Warwick schools received this summer under the new RIDE classifications system split the candidates, as some saw the classifications as accurate and others did not.
Ahearn said the “typical” rating “does speak to our schools,” and believed the NECAP scores, which are the foundation of the classifications, accurately represent the quality of education in Warwick.
Maloney said he “wasn’t happy” with the ratings, and said he didn’t agree with them.
“I know our students and teachers work very hard,” he said.
But Bachus said Warwick schools are anything but typical.
“I do not believe in the NECAPS at all,” she said. “They were developed to see how students were doing at a moment in time.”
Instead of improving the performance of the students, Bachus said the school department should look to improve the manner in which they evaluate students.
Testa agreed, calling the classifications a “flawed rating system.”
“It’s not accurate,” he said. “What it does serve to do is inflame the public.”
Testa went on the say that he would not put much stock into the “typical” and “warning” ratings.
In the same NECAP vein, a question from an audience member asked the candidates to rate Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who has been out on leave due to a brain tumor.
Testa called Gist “hard charging,” and said she had done a “pretty good” job. However, he disagreed with her choice to make NECAPS high-stakes tests, calling the decision “ridiculous.”
Ahearn said Gist has been tasked with a lot.
But Bachus outright said she was “not a fan” of the commissioner, using Testa’s turn of phrase to call her “hard charging and back peddling.”
Another audience member asked what the committee aims to do about in-school bullying. Maloney suggested that the parent of the student immediately contact the principal and teacher, and if they did not work, to reach out to the School Committee so they could become involved. The candidates also commended Volunteers of Warwick Schools (VOWS), for their anti-bullying program taught at the elementary level.
The candidates unanimously supported a suggestion from an audience member to rename Drum Rock Elementary School The Alice V. Freeman School. Freeman, who died this summer, was a longtime special education advocate and school psychologist heavily involved in the Warwick school system for about 41 years.
They also all agreed that the School Committee and City Council should be autonomous.
On the topic of school consolidation, none of the candidates named a specific school they would recommend closing. The issue has come to light due to a declining student population, and most of the candidates said they would support consolidation.
Ahearn said there is “no way around closures,” but the school closed should be determined based on its physical condition.
Maloney said the process of school closure affects people’s day-to-day lives, and should be a transparent and public process. Bachus agreed, saying that long-term facts and statistics should be used in the process, too.
“We can’t do this in a vacuum,” she said.
But Testa said that there would still be a space problem should they close a school, and that any building would be “maxed out” with students. He said there wasn’t one school in particular he would recommend closing today.
As the formal Q and A portion of the forum drew to a close, the candidates were asked which of their challengers they would like to see win, since there are two School Committee seats available. The question received an audible reaction from the crowd; some booed. Still, all of the candidates chose to answer the question. Maloney, Bachus and Ahearn all said they would like to see Testa win; Testa said he would be pleased to serve with any of them, and did not specifically hone in on one candidate.
The candidates were also asked to give letter grades to the current School Committee, and then the Warwick school system as a whole. Bachus gave both the committee and the system a B; Testa a B and a B-; Ahearn gave both a B-, and Maloney gave his committee a B and the system a B+.