Judging by the long line of cars parked all along the side of the main access road leading to a nearly full parking lot at Toll Gate High School on Tuesday night, the signs were evident that it wouldn’t be a traditional type of meeting for the Warwick School Committee.
The auditorium, like the parking lot, nearly filled up with close to 500 teachers, parents and Warwick Teacher’s Union members as the committee returned from its regular executive session, and loud cheers and boos of disapproval were the crowd’s standard operating procedure throughout the nearly four-hour meeting that, at points, resembled a daytime tabloid talk show more than it did a municipal meeting.
The main event of the night was without doubt the public comment session. The session, only normally allotted a half hour (give or take a few minutes), went for nearly an hour and a half continuously, as more than 25 people took to the podium to voice short, passionate bursts of grievances.
The comments included anger over class sizes, jabs about still not having a contract, tearful ploys to the committee to reconsider their stance on eliminating elementary guidance positions, disbelief at dysfunctional technology that plagued the first week of school and outrage at perceived wasteful spending, from unnecessary instructional training to multiple monogrammed uniforms for janitorial staff.
Throughout all the public comments, which were far too numerous to post in their entirety in this format, a big picture message from Warwick Teacher’s Union member Mike Pierce perhaps resonated the most with the audience.
“The discord in this room should be telling you something,” he said. “In short, you’ve wanted to simply reduce this to a display of power...Be careful what you wish for. If you reduce this to raw power, you aren’t going to like it. You don’t have the power – we do, whenever we decide to flex it. You cannot run this district without us. You can’t replace us all. We can shut down the district any day we want.”
Pierce’s comments obviously relate to the fully bloomed jungle of discontent that exists between the school’s administration and many of the teachers in the district, who are now into a third consecutive school year without a contract.
In response to the anger over a lack of a contract, Superintendent Philip Thornton reiterated Wednesday the school committee’s willingness to reach an agreement and said that Mayor Scott Avedisian, who had been participating in negotiations between the two sides as a neutral mediator, had asked the sides to come together last week to discuss contract language regarding class sizes and special education assigning – two topics the union has continually pointed to as a breaking point.
“The union rejected that offer,” Thornton said.
Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teacher’s Union, said that the school committee was only willing to meet to discuss those two issues, nothing more, which didn’t fly with the union’s other concerns.
“While they are two of our most significant issues, they are not the only ones,” she said. “The fact they want us to drop all our grievances has to be discussed, and there are other issues as well.”
The results of interest arbitration should be released soon, and then it will have to be seen whether or not the union abides by the contractual language that will become binding via that decision. However, there may yet be another monkey wrench thrown into the increasingly confusing situation should the one-day Legislative Session of the Rhode Island Assembly held on Sept. 19 result in an override of Governor Gina Raimondo’s veto of the evergreen contract bill, which would reinstate the language of the previous contract.
In terms of actual business, the committee accepted the resignation of Sara Monaco, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, and approved her replacement, Wendy Amelotte, who was a principal in the North Kingstown school district.
“You had the perfect opportunity to eliminate an expensive and unnecessary position in the administration,” said Netcoh during her public comment in response to this move. “You could have put any number of people into it, combined positions or consolidated it. You have no problems eliminating elementary guidance but for some reason you have big problems eliminating bloated administration.”
The committee approved more than $72,456.80 in contract bid awards, including software licensing for early education support (an application called Squiggle Park), a new exterior door at Warwick Veterans Junior High, 1,500 new door stops for use in the whole district and electrical increases to support new technology across the district.
“I just wanted to say I would gladly give up my doorstop and Squiggle Park for a guidance counselor at the elementary level,” said one teacher from Warwick Neck Elementary School during public comment.
A new social media policy that would “establish the standards, procedures, and guidelines for social media use by employees” was eventually tabled due to some concerns over some specific elements of the policy’s language, however all committee members agreed that the document would eventually be a necessary and well thought out piece of legislation for the modern educational era.
“This is what happens when you sit around a table and talk to each other like adults,” said committee member David Testa. “You can get something done.”
In regards to elementary guidance counselors, committee members Testa and Karen Bachus successfully cropped $155,000 from the budget last month to save 1.5 elementary guidance counselors. Testa once more went to the books, trimming another $45,000 from modest, low-percentage cuts to various line items to possible save another .5 positions for elementary guidance – which would allow for two full positions.
However his motion, supported by Bachus, was ultimately voted down 3-2 with ‘no’ votes from Gene Nadeau, Bethany Furtado and Terri Medeiros. Only Nadeau gave a reason for his vote, saying that he didn’t have a firm grasp on the impacts that Testa’s cuts might have on the school’s operations.
In response to the committee’s voting down of the motion, one parent spoke during public comment and said that her son suffers from constant anxiety, and refuses to go to school most mornings. “You know what helped him? An elementary guidance counselor,” she said. “Please help my little boy go to school each day without crying.”
In response to the criticisms over class sizes, which were reported at the meeting to be at 19 kids per classroom across the whole district, 20.2 at Toll Gate, 19.4 at Pilgrim, 22.7 at Winman Junior High and 21.5 at Vets, Thornton said that a full report of class sizes will be included in a future School Committee agenda docket, and said that adjustments were being made to the few classes that had inordinately high numbers of students.
In response to heavy criticism regarding the new printer/copiers that replaced existing technology across the district, Director of Technology Douglas Alexander said: “All major systems transitions have their rough patches, and this project was no exception. The problems we encountered were unforeseen, but within two days our team found a fix that has since been working beautifully. As of this writing the district has pumped out over 700,000 pages using the new system in just the first days of school – we think that's a marker of success.”
Still, the public comment portion did bring out several people who stated that they had never felt the need to speak at a school committee meeting before despite being in the district, in some cases, for decades.
“In 20 years of teaching, I have never felt the need to speak in public comment at a school committee meeting,” said Elizabeth Noren, head of the English department at Toll Gate. “I’m speaking here tonight because the launch of this school year has been the worst I’ve ever experienced.”