NEWS

Talk brews on voter recall, enlarging School Committee

By ARDEN BASTIA
Posted 2/4/21

By ARDEN BASTIA After several tumultuous school committee meetings that left parents feeling frustrated and annoyed, Warwick parent and resident Danny Hall is looking for a way to give voters the ability to recall elected officials. Provisions for a

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NEWS

Talk brews on voter recall, enlarging School Committee

Posted

After several tumultuous school committee meetings that left parents feeling frustrated and annoyed, Warwick parent and resident Danny Hall is looking for a way to give voters the ability to recall elected officials.

Provisions for a recall would require a charter change, as would his desire to increase the school committee from five to nine members. A nine-member committee, he said would “mirror” Warwick city council. One school committee member can run from each Warwick ward, “shrinking campaigning down” and “making it more manageable,” said Hall.

Hall’s effort comes in the wake of an online petition signed by more than 550 people calling for the resignation of School Committee members Karen Bachus and Judy Cobden.

Hall has been an active member in the Warwick community for years, previously running for a seat on the city council as well as the school committee.

On Jan. 26, Hall met with Mayor Picozzi to discuss the expansion of the school committee, Hall wrote in a Facebook post in a group for Warwick schools parents. “The Mayor was very receptive and supportive of the idea, which is fantastic, without his support this will be nearly impossible,” he wrote.

“This charter hasn’t been altered since the 1960s,” said Hall in an interview on Friday. “At that time, the city budget was larger than the school budget and now it’s flipped. You have three votes controlling a $170 million budget. To have only three people be the voices of what is voted on, it’s ridiculous. You need more minds debating these though issues.”

Enlarging the committee or providing a mechanism for a recall would require voter approval of changes to the City Charter. Both the City Council and the General Assembly would need to grant approval for the proposal to appear on the ballot.

In order to move these changes forward, Hall and those looking for change would need to gain support from a majority of the City Council. In his Facebook post, Hall urged parents to email and call the council in favor of changing the City Charter.

“I can call the mayor and the council president and tell them ten different things, but they’re not going to implement changes from one person,” said Hall. “Parents need to step up, and figure out how to make a change that hasn’t happened in over 50 years.”

Mayor Frank Picozzi thinks positively of Hall suggestions.

“He presented his ideas to me, and they’re interesting. I asked him to do a little research on what other cities and towns do, cities comparable to ours. I’m going to be open to it; we’ll see where it goes,” said Picozzi in an interview. “It’s quite a process to do it, that’s why it has to be well thought out.”

Hall is determined to get as many parents on board as possible, “while people are engaged and paying attention,” he says.

As other possible changes in the City Charter, Picozzi favors city council approval of school wage contracts and is open to increasing city elective terms from two to four years provided there are term limits.

According to Hall, Council President Steve McAllister along with Councilmen Tim Howe of Ward 3 and Vinny Gebhart of Ward 9, are open to the amendments. “I’m working my way around to run the idea by everybody,” said Hall.

In an interview on Tuesday, McAllister says he’s “open to any and all changes the could improve our schools. I’m willing to hear anyone who has suggestions. I can’t speak for the whole council, but I’m going to have to see a lot of support if this is to move forward.”

McAllister supports initiating the conversation, but wants to hear from constituents all across the city, and encourages residents to reach out to their council members with their thoughts.

He believes there are “ample opportunities” to recall school committee members, as there is an election every two years, and will remain open to any suggestions about term limits. “The voters get to decide every time there is an election,” he said. “We did have an opportunity a few months ago, so the next time an election comes up, we have an opportunity to reshape the committee.”

While McAllister is open to the possibility of a charter change, he says “it’s very early on” and there’s no need “to draw any lines in the sand.”

Although Hall hasn’t spoken directly to members of the school committee, he is confident they’ll approve. “I don’t know why the school committee would oppose it.”

Karen Bachus, school committee member and former chairperson, supports a charter change. “I’ve been saying this for years. I feel that five members are just too few. We need more to get more done,” she said in an interview on Monday. However, Bachus says it “remains to be seen” if the new union between school committee and city council members will be beneficial. “I don’t know that it would be helpful; that depends on the council member and school committee member.”

In an interview, Bachus said ever since she joined the committee, she’s “wanted to work with the mayor and city council to strengthen our schools,” and started the collaborative efforts just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

This isn’t the first time changes to the charter have been proposed. Bachus described an attempt to change the charter about six or seven years ago where an expanded school committee was suggested. The effort didn’t make it very far, and Bachus said it fizzled out before reaching the General Assembly.

Hall proposes that these charter changes, having one school committee member from each ward, will allow parents of school-aged children to run for the committee. “I think by doing it this way, you’re going to make it less daunting for regular parents to run. It’s impossible to run if you’re a full-time parent.”

Bachus thinks there should be a mix of parents and residents on the committee. “If you have parents who all have children who attend school, it becomes ‘My school, my school, my school.’ It’s good to have people with that experience and knowledge. But the only requirement is that you’re a registered voter in Warwick.”

Judy Cobden, school committee chairperson, said in an email the school committee “has always been accessible to anyone who in their hearts wants to make a difference,” but acknowledges, “these positions are demanding and it’s a huge commitment.”

While she supports having an elected committee, Cobden said she’s seen candidates “that come out of the woodwork when it is time to run and then disappear until the next election. To me, that displays lack of commitment. We need committed and dedicated candidates.”

While this effort is only in its infancy, Hall wants this process to move along quickly, hopeful the topic will reach a city council meeting in early spring, and reach the ballot in time for the next election.

“It’s great when stop signs get replaced or pot holes get filled in, but this is an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and do some meaningful work to impact our kids and grandkids down the road,” said Hall. “The longer we wait, the longer we’re failing them.”

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