As the School Committee prepared for last night and tonight’s public hearings regarding the consolidation of a high school and junior high schools in the district, Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado predicted a vote on the matter could come as early as the regular scheduled committee meeting next Tuesday, Dec. 10.
“I’m looking forward to doing the right thing,” said Furtado in a phone interview yesterday afternoon as she prepared for the first of two hearings regarding the recommendation from the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee that Warwick Veterans Memorial High School be closed at the end of the school year and re-purposed as a junior high for fall 2015 with Gorton and Aldrich Junior Highs closing.
“It’s going to be something,” she added regarding the hearings.
She said following tonight’s hearing, which is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at Toll Gate High School, the Committee will take time to digest the information they have heard and determine a date for the vote. Unless the Committee requests more time to ask questions and study the information, Furtado predicts the vote will occur at the regularly scheduled monthly School Committee meeting on Dec. 10.
Furtado said she has gone over the extensive report given to each committee member by the administration and found it “interesting and informative.”
“Any information you could think to need, it’s there,” said Furtado, pointing out that the report includes historical data, current information and future projections.
The chairwoman also said she, like the rest of the committee, has been hearing from community members on both sides of the issue. She even said some of those who are in favor of the consolidation have asked her why this hasn’t happened sooner.
“The numbers have gone down from 19,400 and change to 9,200,” said Furtado. “We need to look at utilizing the resources to the best we can.”
Specifically, Furtado said if the consolidation is approved, funding could go back into special programming and the student populations in Advanced Placement and honors classes at the remaining schools could grow, leading to a better educational experience.
“They [students] are entitled to the best public education we can provide,” said Furtado. “It’s my job to educate the ones that are here. That’s my job to make sure the kids get what the kids need.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand the passionate and emotional response from those who are against consolidation.
“I understand, but that is what this process is about,” said Furtado. “This is the first step in a process.”
Furtado has also heard the argument that the potential closings will only affect one portion of the city, but as someone who experienced school consolidation as a student, parent and committee member before, she knows that is not the case.
“What happens in this district affects everyone in this district,” said Furtado.
Committee member Karen Bachus said she was prepared for the “long but important process” of public hearings, leading to an eventual vote on the matter.
“I hope everyone gets the chance to speak,” she said yesterday morning in a phone interview.
Bachus said she has been pouring over the material provided by the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee in order to prepare for the public hearings. She has also been talking to a lot of different people on both sides of the issue, including students, parents and teachers.
“I take this very seriously. I don’t want to make the wrong decisions. They are who we are here for,” said Bachus.
Bachus added that going into the first meeting she had questions but was more prepared to listen than talk.
“I have lots of questions, but it’s not my night to ask. It’s time for the students. These two nights are for them to say their comments, ask their questions,” said Bachus. “It’s our time to listen.”
Bachus believes listening to the presentation from the administration and hearing comments from committee members will answer her remaining questions. If not, she does believe she will have the opportunity to clear up any of her concerns with the involved parties before she votes.
Jennifer Ahearn, a committee member and clerk, said she also has been going over the documentation provided to her in a binder and has been asking questions.
“I have been fielding a lot of questions from concerned citizens,” explained Ahearn, who wished to keep the specifics of the questions to herself for now.
She has also been supplementing her study of the report with research on the forthcoming Common Core Standards, the process of all-day kindergarten and what is necessary for a middle school model.
“I’m looking at studies online to see what people are doing in effective school systems,” said Ahearn. “I’ve learned there is no perfect system, but we need to be engaging our students.”
Ahearn admitted it does come down to a numbers game, but she is committed to making the best decisions to lead to the best situation for the kids of Warwick.
“It’s really about trying to do what’s best for the students,” she said.
Terri Medeiros, vice chair of the School Committee, believes the vote can go one of three ways: the recommendation can move forward, it can be put down or it can be held for further study. “I’m completely open-minded in this,” said Medeiros yesterday. “I honestly don’t know how this vote will go.”
Medeiros explained that she too has been spending days going over all of the information regarding this recommendation. She started looking at Long Term Committee meeting minutes and documentation available online starting from the time the recommendation was formed a few weeks ago.
But her focus has remained on the students.
“I like talking directly to the students,” said Medeiros. “The students have all been level-headed.”
Medeiros said communication with students in the district has been a two-way street, with her reaching out to them and some of them contacting her. She said many of them understand both sides of the argument but it is still hard personally.
“We have to think back to when we were in high school; how we identified ourselves was with our high school, especially if you played for a team,” said Medeiros. “That all has to be taken into real account. It’s hard for them to think that for the future, we have to make decisions now.”
She added that she has been very honest with students in saying that she doesn’t know how the vote will go. There is one goal however that Medeiros has.
“I would never want a senior class to split-up,” said Medeiros, who will do what she can to keep that a possibility. “If we really put ourselves back in high school. Our best friend was our world.”
Prior to yesterday’s hearing, Mayor Scott Avedisian provided comments regarding school consolidation.
“This has been a difficult process for the planning committee and all who have been involved in examining the long-term needs of the Warwick school system. There are no easy answers. Our students and the entire community are very invested in their neighborhood schools, and some don’t want any schools to close under any circumstances,” said Avedisian.
Avedisian even alluded to his personal experience with consolidation and the effects it can have.
“When I was a student in the Warwick public schools, I attended four different elementary schools – even though my family lived in the same house for all those years. I understand fully that changing schools can cause upheaval in some families,” he said.
But he also explained that he understood the necessity for it.
“It is evident based on the historical enrollment data that the Warwick school system is running under capacity at the cost of efficiency. Some action by the School Committee is necessary to free up resources that can then be reinvested into the system in the form of technology and facility upgrades as well as improved programs for students,” said Avedisian.
Furtado and Ahearn also took a moment to express their faith that the members of the Long Term Committee did their homework and presented what they truly believe is best for the district.
“Who better to understand the educational system in this district than those who have been in the trenches,” said Furtado, referring to the teachers, principals and parents who volunteered to be on this committee when it formed a few years ago. “They volunteered because they believe in this district.”
Ahearn said she believes the administration can be a trusted source because they were once teachers in the classroom, whether it was in this district or another.
“Their intent is not to hurt any student; they are trying to do what’s best,” said Ahearn, adding that she doesn’t agree with the view that it is the administration against faculty, staff and students in the schools. “Change isn’t easy, but I truly believe they are trying to do what’s best.”
Furtado also added that Superintendent Richard D’Agostino was put in charge by a previous chair to lead the same process that was done when elementary school consolidation was addressed.
“This is not a new thought,” said Furtado about consolidation.
Avedisian hoped that last night and tonight’s hearings would remain respectful.
“The School Committee has laid out a process by which they have taken testimony, formulated recommendations, and will now hear from the public on those recommendations. I urge all people to make their thoughts known. I know there have been contentious meetings on this issue in the past, so I hope that there will be orderly and civil meetings tonight and tomorrow evening,” he said in his statement yesterday.
Furtado also expressed that there is still a lot of misinformation being spread throughout social media and word of mouth regarding the plan. She was hopeful people would go into last night’s hearing, which began with a presentation by the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee regarding their recommendation.
“Go to the meeting and listen to the presentation from the committee,” said Furtado. “Listen with an open mind; that’s what I’m going to do.”
The final public hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Robert J. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center at Toll Gate High School. Tonight’s hearing will begin with individuals who signed up last night but were unable to speak, followed by individuals who sign up tonight before 8:30 p.m. Sign-ups begin at 6 p.m. inside the auditorium; everyone who wishes to speak can do so once and will have 3 minutes.
The meeting is scheduled to end at 9:30 p.m., however if everyone who signed up to speak has not been given the opportunity, the committee can extend the meeting to 10:30 p.m.