Politics and progress
In 1940, when the political arena was again filled with candidates, the Democratic Party split into two factions. Harold E. Flaherty and A. Norman LaSalle fought for the chairmanship of the party. When the Flaherty faction was outvoted, they refused to accept LaSalle and held their own meetings. The rift greatly aided the Republicans who united under the leadership of their new chairman, Thomas Casey Greene.
During this time, rising costs and demands for improvements gave Warwick its first million-dollar budget ($1,064,199.50) on Feb. 1, 1940. The tax rate remained at $22 per $1,000 valuation. Lockwood High School improvements and alterations were continued, and a number of new Federal Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) projects were inaugurated. Major reforms in the organization of the fire and police departments were also undertaken at this time.
Warwick continued to be in the center of the political struggle in Rhode Island when William H. Vanderbilt took office as governor in 1939. Vanderbilt became very unpopular with certain elements in the Republican Party when he began to make major changes. Two of Vanderbilt’s strongest supporters were Warwick’s mayor Albert Ruerat and GOP party chairman Thomas Casey Greene. They were criticized for this and were further challenged when the controversial Vanderbilt became involved in a wire-tapping scandal. An attempt within the party to oust Greene and Ruerat failed and Ruerat once again was a candidate for mayor.
The Democrats in Warwick united after their split in a political duel between Robert E. Quinn and Walter O’Hara and once again selected John A. O’Brien as their standard bearer. With the threat of war in the background, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term and easily defeated Republican Wendell Wilkie. In the gubernatorial election, Democrat J. Howard McGrath won a lopsided victory over Vanderbilt. Warwick, as in the past, bucked the Democratic tide and re-elected Ruerat. In this election he trounced O’Brien by a vote of 8,313 to 4,671.
Within a very short period after the election of 1940, the city was facing a serious problem with the school system. As Warwick’s population grew, there was an increasing demand with the school system. At that time, Warwick’s cost per student was the lowest in the state. The state average was $97.75 and Warwick lagged far behind with $72.58. This low figure existed despite the fact that 41.2 percent of Warwick’s budget went for the support of the schools. The system, led by Superintendent Warren A. Sherman, had 205 teachers, 20 grammar schools and three secondary schools. Warwick’s rapid growth brought the total number of pupils to 6,083 and the schools were overcrowded.
During the Depression, Warwick was fortunate to receive federal assistance to enlarge and improve Lockwood High School, to build Aldrich High School on Post Road in 1935 and Samuel Gorton High School on Draper Avenue in 1939. City officials hoped that this aid and monies from the state and federal government to build a trade school would solve the problems of Warwick’s school crisis.
In addition to the shortage of classroom space, the city faced an acute teacher shortage and dealt with serious discontent among the teachers in the system. Teachers’ salaries in Warwick were very low and the actual amount of pay depended upon the sex of the teacher and the level of education taught. The range of salaries went from $900 per year for a female elementary teacher to $2,200 for men teaching at the senior high school level.
During this period, teachers became more vocal and began making their demands public. Led by John and Joseph McKeon, over 170 teachers, after a stormy two-hour session, rescinded the Warwick Teachers Association’s confidence vote in the School Committee that had been passed earlier. This was the beginning of an almost constant struggle over school issues in the City of Warwick.