The Warwick School Committee tabled until its meeting next Thursday the proposal of Superintendent Philip Thornton to restructure the administration to eliminate the positions of director of elementary schools and director of secondary schools and create new positions of assistant superintendent and director of school leadership.
Thornton sees the restructuring as devoting greater attention on curriculum and student achievement at no additional cost in the current fiscal year. He is proposing the change at this time because of the departure earlier this month of Robert Littlefield, director of secondary schools, who is now director of the Rhode Island Principals Association.
Observing that Warwick is ranked in the bottom third of Rhode Island schools for performance, Thornton said, “This has to change.” He said the assistant superintendent would be “laser focused on teaching and learning.”
While he did not say whether he would fill the position, should the committee approve the restructuring, he described the assistant as taking the lead on education topics and being “a lead educator.”
Asked to expand on the position, Thornton texted Wednesday, “The position of assistant superintendent is a very common educational leadership role found in districts across RI and the nation. The primary role of the position is to focus on teaching and learning and drive the necessary improvements that may be needed in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.”
According to the job posting, the assistant would report to the superintendent and would be responsible for the overall daily supervision of pre-K-12 programs in Warwick. The assistant would also support schools and departments in formulating long-term plans under direction of the superintendent.
Even though administrative restructuring was removed from the docket at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, it took hits during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh called the plan “a willy nilly creation of titles.”
“How can you create two new positions in the middle of the year…don’t do it,” she said.
She argued the new positions – the assistant and director of school leadership – would have greater responsibilities and reasoned they would get paid more, thereby creating an expenditure that hasn’t been budgeted.
“The superintendent shouldn’t circumvent the budget process,” she said.
“I can tell you this isn’t a budget issue. This has no impact on the budget,” school finance director Anthony Ferrucci said after the meeting. He said savings would be realized by the shifting of positions plus the fact that there is currently a vacancy with Littlefield’s departure. Looking ahead to next year’s budget, he said the changes would amount to an additional $9,000.
“I don’t know who’s who,” said teacher assistant Tracey McDermott, holding up the proposed administrative chart. She said her “guess” is that the overall administrative lineup is going to cost more, noting that while there are lots of people at the top level, the department is down on clerks, custodians, secretaries and other personnel.
She also reminded the committee that in order to balance the current budget and restore programs including athletics, the $1.24 million earmarked to meet the annual required contribution to the Warwick Independent School Employees, or WISE, pension plan was dropped from the budget.
“There are 400 members who want their pension when they retire. We haven’t forgotten about it. We certainly haven’t forgotten about it,” she said.
Although the superintendent has the authority to make appointments without the consent of the School Committee, committee chair Karen Bachus said Wednesday the creation of an assistant superintendent position is a policy matter and subject to committee approval.
Thornton is also looking for a director of school leadership who would report to the assistant superintendent. As described in the job posting, the director would be responsible to assist in the daily supervision of 19 school sites and the support of building leadership.
“The director, under the direction of the assistant superintendent, shall ensure that the highest quality common core aligned teaching and learning is taking place in safe and welcoming schools,” it reads.
When Thornton outlined his plan and said whom he intended to name assistant – a person that has not yet been publicly identified – Bachus said she was fully behind the plan.
“I think it was a great choice,” she said.
However, Bachus said the issue has become “contentious” and she can’t say whether it will gain committee approval at a special meeting set for next Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Vets. She said Thornton failed to talk to all committee members before unrolling the plan and he’s now being questioned on “what’s the need to rush this through?”
According to Tim Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, Providence is the only other school district to have directors of elementary and secondary education.
Ryan praised Thornton for addressing “long-standing issues in Warwick schools and getting the focus back on the benefit to kids.” He said assistant superintendents focus on academics and deal with such issues as a consolidated resource plan for the district and teacher certification to ensure they are adhering to a personnel development plan as well as holding the district accountable for student performance.
“It’s a sophisticated job that takes a lot of skill. I think a restructuring plan makes a lot of sense,” he said.