Consolidation and economies of scale were on the minds of some School Committee members at Tuesday night’s meeting, despite the committee’s recent decision to table a vote on school consolidation in favor of hiring an outside consultant to examine the district and develop a long-term plan going forward.
Several items were added to the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting at the request of committee members Jennifer Ahearn and Eugene Nadeau, one of which was economies of scale in regard to the 2015 budget.
Ahearn said she felt there were areas within the school department and on the city side where resources and responsibilities could be shared in an effort to cut down on costs and redundancy.
“There are areas of duplication with processes and procedures between the city and schools,” she said.
At the top of Ahearn’s list was legal counsel, as she said she felt Rosemary Healey, who currently serves as the director of human resources and legal counsel for the school department, was more than capable of handling the legal duties and responsibilities for both the schools and the city.
That wasn’t the way Healey saw things.
She said there were several reasons why it’s necessary for each entity to have its own legal representation, the first of which was if one person represented both, a conflict of interest would exist. She used the example of if the School Committee wished to sue the city over being forced to pay the principal and interest on bond payments, and Healey were the sole representation for both, the committee would not have the option to sue because she would be unable to advise them since she would be representing both parties.
In addition, she said just taking care of legal matters that pertain to the schools takes up most of her time and there’s no way she would be able split her time between school and city matters.
Another area Ahearn felt should be looked at is the city’s Department of Public Works and the school department’s Buildings and Grounds, specifically the possibility of sharing plows and other maintenance equipment.
Healey said she’s participated in studies that looked at sharing and combining services between the schools and the city but said there were several obstacles that prevented it from happening, such as finances and differences in contracts between the two sides.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci said each group needs to be able to defend their needs because they are different.
“It’s a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers versus a fiduciary responsibility to the schools,” he said. “There need to be separate levels of support for each.”
Nadeau took things a step further and suggested consolidating school districts at the state level.
“If we can’t eliminate departments and we can’t consolidate and look at the bigger picture with 36 school districts and 36 superintendents ... don’t you see the tens of millions [of dollars being spent] in a state of 1 million people,” he said. “Why can my sister, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, have one superintendent, one fire chief, one police chief with the same responsibilities?”
Ferrucci said he has no confidence in regional school districts because being in Coventry, he said he’s lived through the consolidation of the town’s fire departments, and they are now bankrupt.
If school districts were to be consolidated at the state level, Ferrucci described it as being on a collision course with an iceberg “and we can’t get off the Titanic.”
Nadeau said if consolidation doesn’t occur at the state level, districts run the risk of going bankrupt.
“It’s going to happen,” he said.
Healey asked Nadeau to picture what would happen if school districts were to be consolidated at the state level.
“You lived through a microcosm of that when you talked about consolidating schools and you saw the outcry,” she said. “Could you imagine if, say East Greenwich was told they had to go to Warwick schools? People would go bananas.”
During public comment, Tracey McDermott, a Warwick resident and employee of the school department, said she’s been coming to School Committee meetings for 17 years, “but the last year of meetings has been mind-boggling to me.”
“Talking about consolidating at the state level, which you don’t even have the power to do, when you wouldn’t even consolidate two schools [at the district level] is insane,” she said. “If you want to change things at the state level, then you need to run for state office.”
Other items on the agenda Ahearn wanted to discuss included a staff survey, the handling of public comment during School Committee meetings and funding for math coaches that were included in the 2015 budget request.
Ferrucci explained that between $375,000 and $380,000 was included in the 2015 school budget request sent to the city and mayor, which calls for approximately $2 million from the city, and that the school department must wait to see how much funding the city will give the schools before it can determine what happens with the math coaches.
“If the city funds our request for the $2 million, then nothing more needs to be done because the math coaches are included in the budget request, but if we don’t get what we’re asking for, then we’ll have to revisit the budget and make cuts,” he said, adding the superintendent would then recommend cuts that the School Committee would either approve or reject, or the committee would make budget amendments to arrive at a balanced budget.
In regard to the staff survey, Ahearn said she wished to draft a site level survey to be given to principals and teachers before the end of the year in an effort to gain feedback and better support administration.
“I think the schools would benefit from constructive feedback from principals and teachers,” she said.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said there are a number of ways currently that staff has input at the elementary and secondary level regarding the needs and direction that departments need to follow, including meeting with elementary and secondary education directors, gaining feedback from teacher workshops, as well as participating in a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) information works survey.
“My fear is that people don’t give honest feedback during grade level meetings when your boss is right in front of you,” Ahearn said. “I want everyone to feel they have a voice in our organization. I believe we can get more information from staff to make it a more collaborative environment and help you to ensure we’re hitting all of our targets.”
D’Agostino said the RIDE survey provides the feedback and answers the questions Ahearn was asking.
“RIDE is a more user-friendly environment of conducting that,” he said. “They’re anonymous surveys that go to the state and then come back to us, with no fear of anyone in the buildings seeing it.”
Ahearn said she wants everyone at the site level to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own school building, and she expressed concerns with the level of participation in the RIDE survey.
D’Agostino said there’s about a 25 percent participation rate with the RIDE survey, which he said is huge, as the participation rate with such surveys is usually closer to 9 or 10 percent.
Ahearn’s motion to adopt the site level survey was defeated 3-2, with she and Nadeau supporting it.
In regard to public comment at committee meetings, Ahearn wanted to know why committee members are not allowed to answer questions from the public.
“There’s a great risk of being in violation of open meetings law,” Healey said. “You can run into legal problems if it becomes a debate of something that isn’t properly posted.”
Healey added that fines would be imposed on individual School Committee members and that they could not be reimbursed.
“If you want an open forum with a Q and A, it must be posted as such,” she said, adding that even then there’s still a risk of violating open meetings law.
Nadeau, who said the public often asks a question that could be answered in two to five words, asked if there could be a compromise where Healey could advise the committee whether a question could be answered or not.
“Once you answer one question, you can’t pick and choose which question gets answered,” Healey said. “Everyone should be offered equal opportunity.”
Nadeau said people sit at the meetings for hours and are interested in what the committee does, and if they have questions that can be answered after the meeting, he would love to do it.
Healey said past practice had been for a committee member to indicate they could answer a question for someone after the meeting and that the committee got away from doing that but could bring it back.
RFP subcommittee update
Also on Tuesday’s agenda was an update on the progress of the RFP subcommittee, which has been tasked with developing a Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire an outside consultant to examine the district and develop a long-term plan, but it was a series of questions from Ahearn that had audience members agitated.
During the update, School Committee member Karen Bachus, who serves as the chairwoman of the subcommittee, said, “We’re moving along swimmingly. We have fantastic people on the committee that are doing a great job. The RFP is coming together and we should have more information next week. It’s pretty exciting. We’re on target to present in June.”
Ahearn said she had a list of questions that came out of the last subcommittee meeting, including: who is the key person responsible for developing the RFP; who is the key contact for answering RFP questions; how will qualified bidders be chosen; who is responsible for evaluating and ranking responses to the RFP; and what statutes and guidelines must be followed?
Answering the questions, Healey said it is her understanding that the subcommittee would develop the RFP for the School Committee to then approve; she suggested the School Committee designate someone to receive RFP questions, but strongly suggested the school department’s purchasing manager, who handles bids, and legal counsel be consulted to ensure legal rules are followed and all bidders receive the same information and opportunity; the School Committee would conduct the analysis of the RFP, and that in the past the RFP has been publicized as well as mailed to particular bidders; the School Committee would be responsible for evaluating and ranking the responses to the RFP; and the public bidding statute should be followed, which determines whether something should be bid based on the contract.
“It depends on the nature of the services and the nature of the bid, but you’re required to put out a publicly sealed bid,” Healey said. “The amount of detail depends on the preference of the School Committee. Most RFPs are usually fairly broad and provide stated information about the district and the task to be performed.”
McDermott expressed her displeasure with Tuesday’s meeting.
“These are questions you should know already or discuss during the school day,” she said. “The RFP questions should have been answered before you started the process. You spent three hours [tonight] talking about nothing and 20 minutes voting on issues that affect education.”
David Testa, a concerned parent who also spoke during public comment, agreed with McDermott.
“I feel like some of the items on the agenda shouldn’t be here; this is stuff you should hash out on your own time,” he said. “There was a lot of talk tonight, but there’s still no all-day K and no middle school and there will continue to be no all-day K and no middle school next year. You have more substantive things to discuss.”