The future of John Brown Francis Elementary School remains up in the air for the time being, as the Warwick School Committee voted to table a motion to halt the repurposing of that school and the closing of two others until September of 2020 for more discussion at the Dec. 12 meeting.
“I want to be clear that this motion only relates to the closing of the elementary schools, and all other elements of the elementary consolidation should move forward as planned,” said Nadeau in his motion to freeze consolidation plans that would close John Wickes and Randall Holden Elementary Schools for June 2018 and re-purpose John Brown Francis Elementary into space for an early children learning center.
The attempts to stop the consolidation plan, which was approved by the committee in 2016, have heated up recently through a grassroots initiative known as Operation Falcon – a group comprised primarily of parents of students at John Brown Francis (JBF) and joined by Ward 1 City Councilman Richard Corley – who argue that community schools like JBF are essential cogs in the machinery of their neighborhoods.
“This is going to hurt our city and hurt a neighborhood where we have a potential to see a lot of home building,” said school committee member Karen Bachus. “Why would you take a great, high scoring elementary school offline that’s important to everyone in the community, including the businesses, neighbors whose children went there 30, 40 years ago – it’s vital.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton spoke up after the motion to say that delaying the closing and re-purposing of the elementary schools would render the other key element of the consolidation plan – moving 6th graders out of an elementary model and into a middle school model with 7th and 8th graders – impossible.
“We can’t have Grade 6 move up and leave the schools open,” Thornton said. Budget director Anthony Ferrucci would later explain that the costs saved from closing and not renovating Randall Holden and John Wickes Schools would amount to $2,244,900. Renovations to those two buildings are projected to cost $15,371,730 if left open.
Moving the 6th grade up would accrue approximately $1,770,000 in staffing costs, as educators and administrative staff such as principals and vice principals would need to be added at the middle school level to account for the new 6th graders in both Veterans Jr. High School and Winman Jr. High – which will both become grade 6-8 middle schools next school year.
Moving 6th grade up to the middle school level is an element to the consolidation plan that nobody seemed to disagree with.
“In Rhode Island there are 32 school districts,” said committee chairwoman Beth Furtado. “Of those 32 school districts, there are two that do not have a middle school model.”
Those two districts? Block Island and Warwick.
“I can’t support anything that stops us from moving 6th graders up, because it’s too important to those kids,” said committee member David Testa. “It’s the best model statewide, it’s the best model nationally and I’d argue it’s the best model emotionally and socially for these kids. If we have to somehow not do that for two more years, that’s 1,200 kids that will not get to experience 6th grade middle school, and that just doesn’t sit with me. I just can’t support that.”
Bachus suggested that Nadeau amend his motion to find a different school, other than JBF, to be re-purposed into an early child learning center. One, she said, that is more centrally located in the city.
“I think every school is vital to the community,” retorted Testa, saying he could look into the audience and recognize parents from a number of elementary schools who are all being affected by consolidation.