Superintendent Richard D’Agostino made the case Thursday: Money spent to keep the city’s three junior high schools operating at about 50 percent capacity would be better spent if Gorton closed and the $1.1 million saved is used to enhance programs for all students.
Whether the School Committee sees it that way won’t be known until it votes Tuesday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at Toll Gate (the meeting, which had been scheduled for this Thursday, was changed yesterday.) Meanwhile, the discussion to close Gorton and the question of D’Agostino’s reasons for that conclusion will continue this evening starting at 5:30 when the committee meets at Vets High School.
While a short-term facilities committee recommended closing Gorton by a single vote about two months ago, it wasn’t until last Thursday that the five-member School Committee saw the presentation. It wasn’t easy to see, either for School Committee members or the nearly 300 gathered at Vets. Columns of enrollment and class size numbers filled one slide after the next on a large screen, but they were so small they were illegible. People complained. Rosemary Healey, the department’s legal counsel and human resources director, informed the audience the slides are on the school website and that those with laptops and smart phones could follow along.
Legible or not, when it came time for the audience to speak, several said the numbers didn’t add up and that there wouldn’t be a $1.1 million savings. They also argued students would be spending up to an hour on buses to get to school and that the department should be moving toward a middle school, with grades 6 through 8, that would improve math and science instruction for sixth graders. Further, they reasoned, going to the middle school model would free up space at elementary schools for all-day kindergarten.
In his opening remarks, D’Agostino sought to cover all of these bases and more. He said he felt sadness when Rocky Point and Sholes roller rink closed, but they are gone. He pointed out that 12 Warwick schools closed between 1973 and 1978; that the senior class for the city’s three high schools is 699 and that, “We’re getting to the point where our high schools are going to be below 1,000 students [each].”
He said the administration’s plan is to stay with the junior high school system and that by moving sixth graders into a middle school model would “cost more” because the system lacks the teachers certified for model school instruction.
D'Agostino argued all-day K “won’t be here,” and if it is legislated, it would be an unfunded mandate.
D’Agostino countered claims that the department has got it backwards and should have a long-range plan before moving ahead with closing a junior high. He said the first step has been closing four elementary schools, this is the second step and the third will be an examination of the high schools and “then we will look at a five-year plan.”
D’Agostino called closing Gorton a “win-win” for teachers, students and taxpayers.
“We’re putting money back in the classrooms,” he said. “We need to downsize so we can do the things we need to do.”
Director of secondary education Dennis Mullen, who chaired the short-term committee, said that Gorton had the lowest teacher-student ratio of the three schools [1-14]. His reasoning is that there should be equality between the schools. And while he acknowledged Gorton performed better than the other two schools in some NECAP tests, which brought cheers from the audience, he said, “you want to look at all the scores” to get the full picture.
In response to claims that closing Gorton would compromise instruction, Mullen said he had run schedules for Aldrich and Winman, which would absorb the Gorton students, and found that there is legitimate room. There would be no reduction in course offerings, including music and art, he said.
Possibly signaling how the committee may vote, only members Jennifer Ahearn and Eugene Nadeau had questions of the proposal. There wasn’t a clear answer as to how much longer Gorton students would be on a bus to reach Winman or Aldrich. The answer given was 10 to 12 additional minutes to reach the district boundary of the other school, which got laughs from the audience.
Anthony Ferrucci, director of school business affairs, outlined the calculations he had used in projecting savings by closing Gorton. Also, the administration traced earlier efforts to use Gorton as the pilot for middle schools in the city.
“We spent thousands doing that and it wasn’t successful,” said D’Agostino.
That wasn’t reason enough not to prepare for the possibility, in the opinion of Amie Galipeau, a member of the short-term committee. She said closing Gorton could preclude a middle school system.
Several Gorton students addressed the committee, saying closing the school would be disruptive and split “one big family.”
“I would not want to go to a school so far away from my house,” said seventh-grader Alyssa Ferland. Eighth-grader and student council president Julia French said Gorton has a 74-year tradition.
“Taking away Gorton is like ripping the heart out of Warwick,” she said.
Gorton teachers also argued to keep the school open, as did parents and Warwick Teachers Union president James Ginolfi.
“You’ve got this backward,” he said. “What are the goals and the vision?”
He called the numbers used to justify closure “distorted,” and claimed that moving the Gorton students would make for tight fits at Winman and Aldrich.
Gorton parent and member of the short-term committee Edward Racca said he couldn’t see how the administration would save 12 teaching positions by closing the school.
William Mellone went a step further. He provided the committee with a written analysis of Ferrucci’s projections, saying, “I think you have been badly served.” He said closing either Gorton or Aldrich would end up costing money due to added transportation costs.
Gorton social studies teacher and Warwick resident Peter Stone reasoned closing the school would have a negative impact on real estate as families won’t want to move into the area and prices would drop.
City Council President Donna Travis told the committee she doesn’t feel they have all the information they need. She said she is 100 percent in favor of keeping Gorton open. Yet, she said, the committee has approved a budget calling for an added $3.8 million in city funding. Asked after the meeting whether she would look favorably on the school budget request if Gorton remained open, she said, “I have a serious problem when they come to us any time they want to get money.”
Travis claimed that a disproportionate amount of school funds go to the administration.
“It is time to put the brakes on the administration, it is way too heavy,” she said.
The committee will learn soon enough how the mayor and council intend to deal with their request.
The mayor will have his budget to the council by next week.