Committee approves extensions for four top school officials
Despite their contracts not expiring until next summer, the Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 to extend the contracts of Superintendent Philip Thornton, Chief Academic Officer Sheryl Rabbitt, Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci and Human Resources Executive Director Katherine Duncanson by an additional two years. The new contracts will not expire until June 30, 2021.
“I appreciate the support of the school committee and look forward to continue to work with this administrative team in Warwick,” said Thornton on Wednesday. “It's a real strong administrative team. We're making a difference and it's validating to have the committee grant the extension.”
The moves have already generated controversy, with critics of the current administration claiming that there was no good reason to extend the contracts prior to their original completion, and the in-favor members of the school committee taking the stance that extending the contracts guarantees continuity in accordance with an educational plan they have already set in motion.
Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh inquired of the school committee during public comment as to whether or not the administrators had been put through any formal evaluation process prior to the decision to extend the contracts. Although there is no state mandate to do so, she said it would hold administrators to the same standards as the teachers they oversee.
“Teachers, support personnel, building-level administrators all have an extensive evaluation system that we must follow,” she said. “I would think that before you would renew any contracts, you would subject your administration to the same level of rigor that we teachers have to be subjected to.”
Others said the move was a political one, as three committee seats could potentially be turned in the upcoming mid-term elections and there was no guarantee as to how a new committee might act upon the expiring of four major administrative positions.
“You just extended a contract with no incentive,” said Judy Cobden, who is running for the District 2 seat currently held by Terri Medeiros. “These people have a big consolidation coming up and they have no incentive to do the best job they can do. You just rewarded people without their job being done…It makes no sense and it just seems like a political move.”
“Extending these contracts was premature because the consolidation of the elementary schools and the movement of the sixth grade to the junior highs have not yet occurred…because the contracts were not set to expire until next year and because there may be three new members of the school committee in November,” Netcoh said in a statement on Wednesday.
Karen Bachus, School Committee Clerk and the lone vote against the measure to extend the contracts, did not mince words in her disapproval of the action.
“I am completely flabbergasted and disgusted by the cowardice actions they took last night to keep the people who they, in their myopic vision, think are the best things that have ever happened to Warwick schools and Warwick education,” she said on Wednesday, adding that she is concerned the administrators will not have to work as hard knowing their jobs are secure for at least three more years.
However, committee members who voted in favor of the measure were adamant Wednesday in follow-up conversations that the extensions were the right thing to do for the district and for the students.
“In my opinion, I believe that in order to continue to move this district forward, continuity and stability I think are paramount,” said Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado. “I believe the team that is in place is doing an outstanding job and I believe truly that expanding the contracts for those four positions was the right thing to do.”
She said there are no financial implications to the extensions. School Committee member at large David Testa agreed with the notion of continuity being of the utmost importance, especially as the school district is now firmly in the midst of big changes, primarily the school consolidation process.
“I think there's some really good talent in that administration building,” he said. “There has been a lot of changes in the past few years and the team that initiated it needs to see it through.”
“We have done a lot of change in the last few years. I really see some fantastic stuff going on,” said Committee member Terri Medeiros. “But I want to see results from the consolidations and the new programs. To put somebody new in the midst of that would slow everything down and we can't do that to our kids.”
Committee vice chair Eugene Nadeau echoed this sentiment as well.
“With all the moves we've had during these past years with personnel, I think we have settled into four of the best [administrators] that I have seen and worked with,” he said. “I think it's very important that they're still on board with all the changes being made in the Warwick School Department.”
Testa said he initially was skeptical about extending the contracts but found continuity to be a compelling argument after he looked into other school districts in the state and found that districts that have a longer-tenured superintendent almost always score better in both English and math than students in Warwick, which has had five superintendents in the last 10 years by his count. The average tenure for a superintendent in Rhode Island, per his research, is five years. Thornton was hired in October of 2015.
Mayor Joseph Solomon said in a call Wednesday that he felt it was “disheartening” to “disenfranchise” whomever winds up on the committee this November. “Those powers shouldn’t be taken away from them,” he said.
Testa, however, pointed out that any new members voted in through this November’s election will still be in the midst of their four-year term when these extensions run their course in 2021, and can then make a more informed decision about whether or not the actions of the current administration have brought forth good results or failed.
“Some people say the newly seated school committee should make this decision,” he said. “But they're going to be able to have a referendum on whether the changes have worked or not.”
Furtado said that, while she understands that sometimes things need to be shaken up – she mentioned being the lone vote in favor of consolidating schools years ago when the topic first came up – doing so now would be a reactionary mistake.
“It's a huge undertaking to go out and recruit four individuals who are qualified to run a school department. These people want to continue the good work they're doing,” she said. “There comes a time when you need a change and that time is not now, in my opinion.”