Panel faces up to hard choices for city schools
The School Department’s long-term planning facilities committee met last week to discuss a mission statement for the group, but it turned into a discussion of what went wrong during the hearings on closing Gorton Junior High School.
“What I saw was the School Committee being pitted against administration. The long-term facilities committee being lumped into the category of a negative entity that’s a sub-committee of the administration, when in fact we are a sub-committee of the School Committee,” said Jacqueline Harris-Connor, a member of the committee who joined as a concerned parent, community member and taxpayer.
At the July 11 meeting, she said the way the discussion to close Gorton occurred and the hearings regarding the issue were an “embarrassment” to the city.
Harris-Connor said the committee should have been in front of the story, and part of the problem was the division of the group into a long-term and short-term committee.
“When you subdivided us, you left an entire portion of the committee out of the conversation,” she said, adding that those left out were, for the most part, community members.
She also recalled her 11-year-old daughter coming home from school saying her science teacher had told the class to get their parents to the hearings because they wanted to close their school.
“Because we weren’t ahead of it, it became bigger than it needed to be,” said Harris-Connor.
Harris-Connor also admitted that she did not fully understand that funding from closing a building would not be found elsewhere, and hopes that the message will be able to reach the community this time around.
“We all care about what’s going to happen to the kids in the city. We all want the best possible public education for the students, however, we have a limited amount of funds,” said Harris-Connor. “We have empty buildings or partially empty buildings, and we need to figure out how best to consolidate those facilities and how best to give the resources to the schools, the financial resources to the schools which they need because we are just not going to get enough money from the state. We’re not getting money from the city.”
Although she voted to keep Gorton open, Harris-Connor admitted that following a presentation from Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci, she wished she could have changed her vote.
She says the public needs to fully understand what she now understands.
“We don’t have this money. If you want the best possible programs, we’re going to have to consolidate and use the money we saved from consolidation to address our needs,” she said.
This concept got the attention of the small audience at the meeting. These community members started saying, not so quietly, that the committee was lying. They claimed those funds would have gone to administrative positions, not programming.
Warwick Superintendent Richard D’Agostino continued to say funds would go to the kids.
“Money is scarce. And I’m not saying the city hasn’t been giving us money. Things are tight all over. We need to fight for the money for the services for our kids,” said D’Agostino.
D’Agostino added that when attempting to use money as efficiently as possible, the under use of buildings keeps causing a problem.
During the meeting he referenced a housing report that ranked the buildings of Aldrich Junior High and Gorton as “C,” meaning they need major repairs to meet current code.
He explained that those two buildings are the only ones in the district with a C rating; the others are all B’s, meaning minor repairs.
“We’re keeping mansions going when we don’t have the capital to upkeep the mansions anymore,” said D’Agostino.
Mark Carruolo said when the conversation turned from buildings to curriculum and programming, he saw a problem. Carruolo said he is not knowledgeable in that area and the committee should make sure to get experts in the field if those become a major part of the discussion.
“If we are looking at facilities, let’s just take that into consideration; is it flexible enough to do this or that, but I don’t think we should get into should we do this or that,” said Carruolo.
Committee member Mary Townsend agreed.
“We need to start with [buildings] and then with what we have, then make the programs for the kids,” said Townsend. “I don’t think we can keep intertwining it. Otherwise, you’re never going to make a decision.”
Director of Elementary Education Robert Bushell said the opposition from the community regarding closing Gorton was not new. The same thing happened when it was proposed to close elementary schools.
Bushell recalled receiving threats, having angry parents swearing at him, and having fingers thrown in his face.
But in the end, the schools closed and the students were fine.
“It did not impact the kids negatively. They have adjusted,” said Bushell. “The parents were the hard part, not the kids.”
Carruolo said he has seen the conversation repeated over and over again. He even compared making a plan for the future and presenting it to parents to ripping off a Band-Aid.
“You have a plan, you lay it out there, you take your hits, you make your decision and you move on,” he said, adding that he understands decisions that involve children can be sensitive.
And after the discussion, that plan could include closing not just a junior high, but a high school as well.
Ed Racca said he has brought up the idea of making a two high school/two junior high model multiple times. Building wise, Racca said both Gorton and Aldrich could close and the students could be moved into a large high school building.
D’Agostino admitted that might be possible numbers-wise. According to the superintendent, in 1968, Warwick schools taught 20,000 kids – 10,000 at the elementary level and 10,000 at the secondary level.
Today, there are 9,600 total, including pre-kindergarten, with 4,600 in secondary.
“Maybe that’s one of the things that needs to be considered, is when you look at secondary, you look at not only junior high school but you look at high school,” he said.
The committee as a whole appeared to be in agreement with that idea.
Carruolo also said he felt a red herring was put out to the public that if a junior high school was closed, there would not be enough room to move toward a middle school model. He believes that outside analysis was contrary to the information he had.
The fact that Warwick Teachers Union President Jim Ginolfi is reportedly against a middle school model also gave Carruolo pause.
“It appears they may or may not be on board with something that basically sidetracked what the group was trying to accomplish, which I don’t think is productive,” said Carruolo. “I think it’s counter-productive.”
By meeting’s end, a mission statement was determined. D’Agostino read it during the meeting as follows:
“The purpose of the long-term planning facilities [committee] is to provide a written plan for the school district that would provide for buildings and structures that house students and staff for the next five years and that are flexible enough to accommodate change in or upgrades to programming, grade configurations, etc., by the school administration and school committee.”
Although the majority of the discussion revolved around closing buildings, the concept of creating full-day kindergarten also came up. D’Agostino said all items are up for discussion, but the full picture needs to be examined.
“Even if you have the space for all-day K, we won’t have the funding for a teacher and a T.A. for that classroom,” said D’Agostino.
The superintendent said the process would always be an on-going one, but Bushell pointed out the key.
“This is a very, very emotional issue,” said Bushell. “But the numbers don’t lie. They are there and that’s what we need to rely on.”
The committee planned to have their next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 5 p.m. at the administration building.