The hundreds that packed the Toll Gate auditorium Tuesday night to learn the fate of Gorton Junior High School stood up and cheered following the 4-1 approval of a motion to table the vote on school closure until January 2014.
Karen Bachus made the motion to delay the vote and reconvene the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee to determine the best way to move the district forward and present three viable plans, not one, to the School Committee at its January 2014 meeting.
“We have one chance to do this right. I don’t believe we should close any school until we know where we’re going in the future,” she said.
The recommendation to close Gorton and send those students to Aldrich and Winman came in response to declining enrollments and that all three schools are at 50 percent of occupancy or less. Closing Gorton would have saved a projected $1.2 million in operating costs.
The morning following the vote, teachers carrying heart-shaped signs reading “thank you” greeted parents dropping their children off to school and the arrival of school buses. The mood of teachers was upbeat, although they pointed out there are no guarantees about next year.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Bachus said the three viable plans should take into account all-day kindergarten, Kindergarten through eighth grade, and the middle school model of sixth through eighth grade. She said the final plan would likely include closing schools next year.
“This coming year will be hell; don’t think this is a positive thing. We’ll have to tighten our belts, but we’ll get by,” she cautioned. “But we need a solid plan to move the district forward and provide the best education possible for the students. I believe this will eventually make us a better school district in the future.”
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn said she agrees the district needs to be taken to the next level.
“But I don’t agree we’re being responsible by approving a budget for next year with a $3.8 million overage,” she said. “That has to be looked at because we don’t know what programs will be sacrificed to keep schools open. Educational sacrifices will be made if this is tabled; I want to make sure everyone is on board with that.”
Following her comments, Ahearn made a motion to table the vote until after the City Council approves a city budget and the schools know how much money they’ll be receiving.
Seconding Ahearn’s motion, Eugene Nadeau suggested tabling the vote until June 30.
“We currently get $118 million a year [from the city]. I hope [the City Council] would look kindly to keep Gorton open,” he said. “I don’t want Gorton to close; I want it to stay open this year and the years following when it becomes a middle school.”
Nadeau said the time has come to make kindergarten all-day and unite the sixth grade with the seventh and eighth grades, thus creating three middle schools.
“We need to prepare for when the Common Core standards come in to replace the NECAP test,” he said. “Those moves are coming down the pike. Eighty-three percent of the country and 90 percent of Rhode Island uses the middle school model; the time has come.”
Rosemary Healey, school director of human resources and legal counsel, explained that June 30 isn’t doable because of contract deadlines.
“We need to send transfer notices by June 14, with a job fair no later than June 30, so that takes it too far into the year,” she said. “In order to satisfy contract obligations, we would need to know by June 7.”
Bachus said the committee couldn’t afford to wait until the City Council makes a decision.
“We owe it to the entire city, the students and the teachers to let them know where they will be before June 30,” she said.
Ahearn said she believes it’s irresponsible to make a decision without knowing what the educational ramifications are going forward.
“There are a lot of students out there that are not in the audience tonight, and any programs that have to be let go will affect them,” she said.
Nadeau and Ahearn ultimately withdrew their amendments to Bachus’ motion.
School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado was the only dissenting vote against the motion to table. She opened her remarks by thanking everyone who spoke at the public forums about what Gorton means to them before explaining why she thinks consolidation needs to happen going forward.
“We can’t continue the way we are; we need to consolidate and move forward to provide the highest [level] of education possible,” she said. “This is not all about the money, but about providing the best possible education that my students are entitled to, which is the best and brightest teaching them every day and providing the items they need to accomplish their goals.”
Furtado said it was important to remember how the district arrived at its current state.
“It’s important to look at what has brought us to where we are now and the draconian cuts needed to balance a level funded budget, which was reduced by $5 million three years ago and has been level funded since,” she said. “We’ve been asked to do far more with far less.”
Furtado said the committee has had to make difficult decisions, such as reducing administrative staff, eliminating an entire WISE [Warwick Independent School Employees] department and closing elementary schools.
“I’m the only member on this committee that was on the committee when we voted to close four elementary schools, which had not happened in 30 years. The secondary schools have not been touched since Lockwood was closed in the ’70s,” she said. “There’s a continual decline in population, and a decline of 1,000 is projected over the next decade – that’s the population of a current high school. We need to address the issue now and not ignore the situation. The committee must move forward and the solution is through consolidation.”
Furtado said if Gorton was closed, schools would still have to look at cutting $2.5 million from the budget going forward, which would affect all students, since all indications are that schools will not receive the $3.8 million increase requested from the city. If Gorton stays open, the committee has to look at $3.8 million in cuts, which will “affect everyone in every classroom.”
While Furtado was speaking, some in the audience yelled that cuts should come in administration instead of programs, which Bachus didn’t take kindly to.
“Over the past weeks, I’ve witnessed folks beat up our administration. Every administrator is doing two to three jobs and they’re not getting two to three salaries,” she said. “They work really hard and I respect the numbers that were brought to us. I did not make my proposal based on the numbers, but it was based on the need for a long-term plan to give us the best school district in the state.”
Prior to the vote, Ahearn echoed Furtado’s comments regarding cuts.
“A long-term plan will require lots of concessions by our staff, the City Council and our union membership for this district. It’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page as to the direction the district will go,” she said.
Darlene Netcoh, Toll Gate English teacher and department head, thanked the committee for holding open meetings and listening to the people.
“Thanks for proving the vote wasn’t set ahead of time,” she said. “You listened to the people that spoke and made a decision based on what they said and not what the administration wanted.”
Netcoh also suggested when the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee reconvenes that the Short Term Facilities Planning Committee joins them, “so all voices can be heard going forward.”
David Testa, a parent of three in Warwick schools, said it’s the School Committee’s job to fight to make sure the city doesn’t level fund the schools.
“You’re here to represent all the people that were here tonight, not the administration. Your job is to advocate for the students to get the best education possible,” he said. “City Council members that said they don’t want to close Gorton; we’ll see where the rubber meets the road when it comes time to determine the money for schools.”
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, one of four council members in attendance, said Warwick needs to look at how to tighten the amount of administrative positions between the city and schools.
“Why do we have two purchasing departments, why do we have two MIS departments, why do we have two maintenance departments between the school district and the city? We need to look at combining those departments to provide additional funding to go into the classrooms,” she said. “When I hear that teachers are providing supplies for students and students are bringing in reams of paper so the teachers aren’t totally broke, that infuriates me.”
Vella-Wilkinson said the City Council doesn’t set the budget, but rather ratifies the budget that is set by the mayor.
“I voted, with Councilman Solomon, for a $325,000 windfall to go to the schools, and I have no problem doing that if it goes to the teachers and students in the classroom, and not to administrators, assistant administrators and deans of administration,” she said.
Ed Turner said he was glad to see the vote.
“I think people are OK with closing a school if it’s done in a responsible manner with proper planning,” he said.