Saturday morning marked the first meeting for the School Committee’s subcommittee tasked with drafting a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a long-term planning consultant to study the school district. With the exception of School Committee member Karen Bachus’ appointment as chairwoman, the meeting included conversation about hopes and visions but little to no decision-making.
In fact, it was even difficult to determine if all committee members were present for the two-hour session at the Warwick Public Library. RFP subcommittee and School Committee member Jennifer Ahearn was under the impression the 10 individuals present comprised the entire committee, while Bachus said a few were missing. According to Bachus, the committee would fluctuate between nine and 12 members.
Another point of contention among the group was creation of a timeline for the RFP, or at least identifying target dates.
Mayor Scott Avedisian, who is not an official committee member but said he or Chief of Staff Mark Carrulo would be present at as many meetings as possible, first brought up the issue during his comments. He believed a timeline would keep the subcommittee on track.
Others echoed the need for a timeline, saying having a date would help keep the subcommittee moving because they would not have the option to constantly push issues off.
Bachus did not agree, saying the process will take as long as it needs to.
“There are some people who want that [a timeline]. I want to make sure we leave no stone unturned,” said Bachus, adding that she knows the work ethic of the individuals involved and believes there will be no issues or delays. “It may take six meetings; it may take 20. But whatever it takes, we have to do our due diligence.”
Ahearn attempted to bring up the need for a timeline again but was quickly shot down, with Bachus saying she did not even want to discuss it.
The mayor also suggested presenting each member of the subcommittee with the school consolidation plan created by the School Department’s Long-Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) so the members could have a better understanding of where the school system stands.
“So we know where they were, so we know what issues they we’re facing, to see how the discussion got to where it was,” said Avedisian.
In November the LTFPC recommended closing Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, Gorton Junior High School and Aldrich Junior High School, and the re-purposing Vets as a junior high by fall 2015. The committee had been tasked with looking at buildings in the district and developing a plan for the future of those facilities. The final recommendation was met with a great deal of public backlash, prompting Bachus to call for an outside consultant to come in and look at the system. The LTFPC’s original recommendation was tabled.
Upon the mayor’s suggestion to include the LTFPC’s report, subcommittee member Nina Savage, a Warwick attorney who spoke out against the LTFPC’s proposal during public hearings, expressed her fears that the report would “taint” the process.
“It caused so much turmoil in the community with the way the process was done,” said Savage about the last go-around, bringing up the rumor that the plan to re-purpose a high school was always the goal and the LTFPC worked backwards. “That was upsetting. It was not transparent.”
Speaking up briefly, Carruolo said the consultant will perform data collection on their own if necessary but population projections or existing data should be included in an RFP so consultants know they do not need to “re-invent the wheel.” Carruolo added that the subcommittee should lean on the few members who have experience putting together RFPs when it comes to those decisions.
One such member is Cheryl Maynard, a parent of four children in the Warwick School System with a background in town planning.
“I think it’s important as we talk, to write down specific deliverables so when we’re out there looking at consultants, we’re comparing apples to apples to apples,” said Maynard.
She noted some deliverables brought up during the meeting, including common curriculum and course offerings, safe routes to school and partnerships with colleges and businesses.
City Councilwoman for Ward 3 Camille Vella-Wilkinson has joined the committee to represent City Council and expressed the hope that this RFP results in a comprehensive plan for the school district similar to the one created for the city. She also hoped to speak with members of the business community to identify education gaps.
“Not all of our kids go on to higher education. That might have some interesting viewpoints with regard to further developing some of the curriculum,” said Vella-Wilkinson.
At the start of the meeting, public comment was allowed so audience members had a chance to share their concerns.
Some of the concerns included looking at actual transportation costs and not estimates, the effect transportation has on the amount of time left for after-school activities and homework, the idea that smaller schools outperform larger schools, and getting the consultants to look broadly at school properties.
Toll Gate English teacher Darlene Netcoh suggested the word “consolidation” not be used anywhere in the RFP to encourage a variety of options.
“We should encourage divergent thinking on the part of the consultant hired, not convergent,” she said.
Patricia Nazareth, a former member of the LTFPC, spoke about the need for a common curriculum across schools.
“These children should be able to move from one school to another, and the curriculum be the same, the offerings be the same, it should all be the same,” said Nazareth, who has a 14-year-old in the system. “The quality of education my 14-year-old is getting is not the same as my older children got and it annoys me.”
Finally, Warwick resident Robert Savage suggested the consultant look at the option of doing nothing.
“One thing I think they should look at is maybe nothing should happen,” he said. “Maybe our schools are at an ideal level now.”
Many comments from both the public and the committee seemed to address their hopes for what should be done for the district, not requirements for the consultant. Ahearn attempted to keep the group on track.
“We’re not creating the plan. We’re developing requirements for what we want for the individual that comes in, whose objective, who doesn’t have these goals or expectations,” she said.
To provide some guidance, Ahearn invited Joseph DaSilva from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Office of Statewide Efficiencies and RIDE school construction coordinator to speak about the process of facility planning.
DaSilva spoke for close to 40 minutes, boiling down the requirements for facility planning to four areas.
The first “leg” of the facility-planning stool is education framework. DaSilva encouraged the committee find a consultant who will engage the community to determine a vision for Warwick’s school system.
“Educational framework is key. You need a vision and you need someone who can capture that vision,” said DaSilva.
Next comes demographics; DaSilva explained a consultant who can look at state and national demographics, who understands national trends, is the best bet. The next leg is looking at the capacity and quality of all the buildings in a district and, finally, DaSilva said cost must also be a factor in facility planning.
DaSilva added that the consultant hired should also have a sense of the community of Warwick, and existing data should be provided in the RFP.
“They need to understand the culture of your community,” said DaSilva.
There was also brief talk of breaking the subcommittee into further subcommittees to address these areas and community outreach.
Following the conclusion of the meeting, both Ahearn and Bachus were positive about the future.
“I feel very positive. I just hope we can stay on some sort of timeline,” said Ahearn. “We are just setting requirements that will help determine what the professional will do.”
She added that she just wants this process to result in the best possible system for Warwick schools.
“I feel very positive about it. I think it’s exciting. It hasn’t been done by the schools in a while,” said Bachus. “I see the future very bright.”
The next meeting of the subcommittee is scheduled for Thursday, March 27 from 5 to 7 p.m., location to be announced.