Candidates running for three open seats on the Warwick School Committee gathered inside Studio 107 at Pilgrim High School Tuesday evening for a question-answer forum that covered everything from the role of a school committee in public education to implementation of new technology within the schools.
The forum was made possible by student volunteers, including six students from Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools who helped formulate and asked questions to the candidates. Many more students assisted in helping set up camera and audio equipment, lights, setting the stage for the candidates and working with faculty to oversee the entire operation. Students in production classes will be working through the hour and a half of video to produce a finished video that will be broadcast on public access.
All candidates were given the opportunity to answer a wide range of questions, however one candidate – Corey Smith, running for District 3 against Nathan Cornell – was unable to attend the forum due to a commitment teaching a night class at Johnson & Wales University. Smith said he would be answering questions from the forum through a video on his campaign Facebook page in the coming days.
The air dates are scheduled as following, although they may be adjusted depending on time necessary for post-production. PEG RI-TV will be broadcasting the forum, which Cox customers can view on Channel 17 and Verizon customers can view on Channel 37.
Air dates at this time include: Friday, 11/02 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, 11/03 at 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 11/04 at 1 p.m.
The role of a school committee in public education
After giving opening statements, candidates were asked what they believed the role of the school committee should be in regards to helping run the district’s schools. The major theme among candidates here was listening and collaboration.
“A [school committee member is a] nonpartisan member of the community balancing themselves between the taxpayer, the school community, the students – there’s lots of jobs that a school committee member has to do,” said Terri Medieros, running for re-election in District 2. “You have to be aware of all the policies that go into what makes a district work and be able to communicate with whoever is elected in office on the city side.”
Others focused on how school committee members need to be well versed in communication.
“They need to really be on track with what’s going on in the schools, what the parents want, what the teachers need to provide for their students and what’s going on in the administration. So, when it comes down to it, there’s open communication,” said Kyle Adams, running for District 1. “That way we are understanding what every stakeholder needs in order to make a change in Warwick and provide what is best for our students.”
“You can’t make decisions on education unless you know what’s happening in schools,” said Nathan Cornell, running for District 3. “You need to go there, you need to talk to principals, you need to talk to teachers and you need to talk to students. You need to have all the facts before you make decisions.”
The role of the school committee also necessarily intertwines with the legislative branch of the city government, the city council, as the council is responsible for appropriating money from the city budget to the schools. Being able to work with the city council, which has openly displayed mistrust of the school department in recent months in regards to issues around policy and financial matters within the schools, was another important topic of the evening.
“The majority of the problem I think is the fact that there is no trust of the school committee,” said Judy Cobden, running in District 2. “They feel as though a lot of the money was wasted, and they don’t want to give any more out right now to this current school committee. That’s my opinion of what I’ve heard.”
“I say we need to step up as a group and get after the city council. Make them understand it’s very important,” said Richard Cascella, running for District 1. “We should all be together. We all want the same thing, it’s just how do we get there. I think it’s important we try to impress on the city that this is an investment into the future of Warwick and we need to get together on that.”
However, the fact that communication is occurring now – representatives from the city council and school administration and school committee have had multiple meetings with Mayor Joseph Solomon while they attempt to negotiate a challenging budget crisis – was a positive sign for some on the panel.
“I see small bridges being built now…When I first got on, prior to the superintendent that we have now, the communication between the city and the school committee was almost nonexistent,” said Medeiros, adding that it would take time and collaboration for both sides to understand the other’s fiscal situation. “Is there still some strain between some [members of the council]? There is, but I want to keep moving forward for the schools.”
On school safety
Not surprisingly, all candidates placed school safety as a priority. Some, like Medeiros, focused on the positive strides made in the district, such as how the district only had 38 security cameras prior to 2016 whereas, now, there are over 300. “There’s always more we can do,” she measured.
Others were concerned about what they perceived to be crucial issues of safety, such as the public announcement system that has been broken for years at Pilgrim High School. It should be noted that work on that PA system was approved this summer to be conducted through a bid and is due to begin being repaired, along with work to be done on the imperfect PA system at Toll Gate.
Cobden was critical of what she felt was misplaced priorities.
“There are plenty of things that I can see that are wrong. But instead of fixing safety right now…we’ve wasted money on the admin building before the safety of our children,” she said, later saying the district spent $1 million on renovating the Gorton Middle School building into its administrative headquarters. According to school committee meeting records and finance director Anthony Ferrucci, the district actually spent closer to $444,000 between January and October of 2017 on the Gorton building.
Cascella brought up how the teachers have access to a unique security failsafe app on their phones that connects with a municipal emergency response system called Mutual Link. The app, when turned on, provides updates from first responders and can alert police of the presence of people in need of help within the area of an emergency. While he praised the system as a great thing to have access to, he lamented that a small percentage of teachers had actually installed the app within the district.
“In an emergency, with everything else in lockdown or everything else off the grid, it’s nice to know that you can push a button and get real time information about what’s going on as far as school safety goes,” he said.
Cornell said he supported adding more resource officers to schools, and that he was dismayed to hear from students how some of them are actively scared of school violence happening at their school.
“Sometimes they’ve told me they’re scared to even go to school, which should never happen,” Cornell said. “School should be the safest place one can go to.”
On custodial cuts
As part of an effort to cut $6.6 million from the budget to balance the books, 15 custodial positions – some clerical and some cleaning staff – were removed from the budget over the summer to do so. This has resulted in obvious challenges and negative consequences within the schools. While all involved in the district have voiced a need to get the custodians back, there were no clear, immediate options offered Tuesday night on where that money can come from, aside from additional funding from the city.
“I think from a ‘what do you cut standpoint,’ I think most of the cutting that can be done, it’s been established that it has been done as best as it could be,” Cascella said. “Custodians are unfortunately a luxury, or nonessential, as far as what the law requires us to provide for certain programs. Custodians fall outside of that, as well as the mentors. So they end up being, unfortunately, the odd men out.”
Cobden suggested looking into the busing schedule in Warwick, as each bus contract runs close to $100,000 and, “We’re busing kids around and some of the buses have five children in them,” Cobden said. “That’s a lot of money that we’re spending on buses, and I think that needs to be looked at.”
Medeiros would later bring up that an independent study of buses was commissioned by the school committee earlier this summer, and that she agreed it should be looked into. She also talked about having looked into putting middle school sports on hold for a year or two until the budgetary problems were corrected. She said she was still hopeful the city council could work with them towards restoration of custodians.
Adams offered that there was perhaps a way to absorb cuts elsewhere in the budget without completely gutting one area in particular.
“I think the big problem with what happened with the custodians was that it happened all at once, in such a decimating amount to just the custodians,” he said. “I think if we were able to look at the budget, rather than just choose one department and focus there, we shop around. As much as we don’t want to hear it, we take a little bit of something from everything, rather than a lot of everything from something.”
Cornell was the first to bring up another often talked about issue in regards to funding in Warwick – the state funding formula.
“The custodians definitely need to be re-implemented,” he said. “One thing I found and looked into was the state funding formula for the state. I think there are some things that definitely need to be looked at, because there’s a huge difference between how much we got than Cranston, for example.”
Both Cascella and Medeiros agreed that the state funding formula was not kind to Warwick, and could be reconfigured. Cobden advocated for more lobbying to occur at the State House to make the financial issues of the district more known to state representatives, who could possibly advocate for changes to the formula. On technology
Changes to technology have often caused strife in the district, with a philosophical change coming from the administration in regards to recycling dated technology for new, streamlined technology such as Chromebooks and Promethean Boards. The reasoning, besides being the newest and most capable technology, is primarily the ability to better ensure the security of the devices, update them effectively and maintain them through a cohesive network.
However, the resentment that resulted from this shift in strategy – which some found to be too brash, including some in the Warwick Teachers’ Union and even members of the city council, who called for a special meeting to get to the bottom of allegations that district administrators had arbitrarily been trashing personal property of teachers without alerting them – reared up once again during the forum.
“Just because something is a little outdated, doesn’t mean it’s not useful anymore, and you don’t throw them out, because it might have a use. There’s no communication between the teachers,” said Cobden. “We need to talk to our teachers…It’s important to find out if this is really necessary. Do they really want it? Do they think it’s going to be helpful in the school? They’re the ones teaching our children. We don’t need to buy things that they don’t want and we can’t take away tools that they are using. It’s not up to the school committee or the administration to decide what a teacher is going to use to teach our kids.”
“We’re in a different world and we need to adapt to this, but we need to do it in the right way and we need to transition,” agreed Cornell. “You need new technology but you can’t get rid of all the other technology.”
“If you’re going for technology, it needs to be done right,” added Adams. “You don’t go for the most expensive thing…you need to go for what works the best, and that’s what it comes down to.”
Cascella said that Chromebooks and Promethean Boards and technology like that has brought the district forward, saying that “an investment in technology is an investment in our schools.”
On working together towards a better district
Perhaps the most common thread between candidates was the concept of better communication and collaboration among school committee members, members of the public – primarily teachers and students – and the city government, as well as those working in the school administration.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t work hard in this situation, I think it’s more about working right. And that’s where trust and transparency comes in. We’re not getting anywhere with no one trusting anyone and no one knowing what the other party is doing,” said Adams. “Life is a conversation. You’re not going to get anywhere without communicating.”
For Cobden, respect was a key point.
“I think we need to work as a team,” she said. “I think as far as the school committee and the administration, along with the teachers, there needs to be respect among all of you. I don’t see that, and I haven’t seen that in the three years I’ve been very involved.”
This opened up another avenue involving public comments at school committee meetings. Cobden, Cornell, Adams and Cascella all spoke about the obvious value of having the public be able to provide comments at the beginning of meetings – rather than at the end once everything has already been voted upon. Cornell took the thought a step further, proposing the idea of forming a subcommittee of the school committee that would be comprised of teachers, students and parents.
“I think that committee could accomplish a lot of things,” Cornell said.
Cascella took a different approach to that issue, proposing possibly expanding the school committee to seven members, two of which would be appointed, and possibly having two meetings a month – one where the public would be able to ask specific questions of a subcommittee, and the other the business meeting, similar to how the city council splits its meetings into essentially two parts.
“I think that’s where you’re going to get that exchange that will help bring ideas forward and make everyone feel more engaged in the process and make everyone feel like their opinion matters,” Cascella said.
Medeiros urged everyone in the school district to exercise patience with one another, even when emotions run high, and that compromise and understanding is essential to a healthy school district.
“I think the most important thing is to be a listener. If there is some anger coming towards you, don’t give it back,” she said. “I just don’t think that anger and judging and name calling helps anybody, and everyone who works in our school district is serving the families and I think that if everyone kind of remembers that and backs up, compromise happens. And I’ve seen it happen.”
The Beacon would like to once again thank everyone for their role in setting up the forum, particularly Andrea Place, Christopher Pratt and Rich Denningham of Pilgrim High School, as well as Superintendent Philip Thornton and the six students who volunteered to formulate and ask questions: Rebecca Carcieri, Ryan Corrigan, Zachary Lafontaine, Tara Monastesse, Andrew Powers and Danielle Stone.