As the Warwick School Department works on the bid specifications for an outside consultant to evaluate the district, the debate as to whether or not the School Committee made the right decision tabling a vote on the re-purposing of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School continues.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said specifications for a consultant are being put together by the School Department’s Business Office in accordance with a motion made by the School Committee at their Dec. 10 meeting. He expects specifications to be completed and advertised “shortly.”
The School Committee asked that a consultant be hired to evaluate both secondary schools and the elementary schools.
“We are requesting two proposals, one for elementary and one for secondary schools,” said D’Agostino.
He explained that by having separate recommendations, the School Committee would be able to decide if they want to consolidate in two phases (secondary, then elementary or vice versa) or all at once.
While the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee only looked at consolidating at the secondary level, the School Committee’s motion opened up the possibility for a recommendation to consolidate at the elementary level. School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado wanted bid specifications included in the basic requirements. D’Agostino said this includes that the company chosen has the experience and expertise to make solid recommendations.
“The company needs a history of experience with K through 12 education,” said D’Agostino, adding that the consultant chosen to complete the work will also need to have several references connected to past service.
As for the administration’s involvement with the work of the consultant, D’Agostino said it would depend on what the consultant needs.
“There are many different ways of doing it,” said D’Agostino. He said the consultant could look at state numbers in terms of student enrollment, information from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), as well as the information from the original Long Term Facilities Planning Committee. “Those are all statistics the state has,” said D’Agostino.
The superintendent also said his administration would address any questions the consultant has during the process.
“If they have questions for us, we are asking for those in writing and we will respond in writing,” said D’Agostino. “That way there is no confusions with, ‘oh, I thought you asked this.’”
D’Agostino would not predict what a consultant might recommend concerning elementary school consolidation. D’Agostino pointed out that moving sixth grade to the junior highs changes the layout of the district and eliminates the need to close elementary schools.
“The purpose of moving sixth grade up to the junior highs would be to make room for all-day K,” said D’Agostino. “We believe we need an all-day K. That’s on the radar and we’re going to do that whatever way we can.”
D’Agostino said moving the sixth grade to the junior high will eliminate the need to construct facilities for the all-day K program. Instead, D’Agostino said the only need would be to hire more teachers and teacher’s assistants, and make sure existing classrooms could be used for kindergarten.
“If we eliminate the need to construct facilities, then we can look at using what we have,” said D’Agostino.
While an entire classroom would not need to be constructed in existing schools to accommodate additional kindergarten classes, the rooms would need new furniture, the proper fixtures for a kindergarten, as well as bathroom facilities inside the room.
D’Agostino added that the purpose of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee was to provide facilities for whatever curriculum is determined; the School Department administration and the director of curriculum determine those changes.
One question brought up by the committee’s decision to table the re-purposing of Vets is if the School Department will need to complete fire code upgrades to Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools, a cost of $2 million. Since the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s proposal included the closure of the two junior highs in June 2015, D’Agostino had spoken with the Fire Marshal about avoiding those upgrades in the event the buildings closed.
“We were only given the extension until next year, next September,” explained D’Agostino. “If this goes beyond a year, they may give us an extra year, they may not. That is up to the Fire Marshal.”
D’Agostino said if the School Committee creates a future plan that includes the closing of the two junior highs, he will still work with the Fire Marshal to avoid the $2 million in updates, as well as the potential $8 million in capital improvements needed at the buildings.
“They only give you x amount of time,” said D’Agostino. “Longer than a year, a year and a half, two years, we’re going to have to go forward with the fire code upgrades.”
While D’Agostino and the administration are prepared to take the next step with hiring a consultant, Beacon readers have kept the debate going in the comments section of the Dec. 12 “Committee tables school plan” article on the paper’s website.
“The taxpayers and students of Warwick have been betrayed by the spineless school board,” wrote patientman (a username). “Programs will need to be cut to pay for the study and the savings that won’t be realized through consolidation.”
“Had I known the school committee was going to cave to a small, hysterical group of the City’s taxpayers, or more than likely non-tax paying residents, I would have organized a rebuttal protest in favor of inevitable change,” wrote user maggie123.
“The 600 people who cheered this decision should pick up the financial tab for the rest of the Warwick taxpayers who have to foot the bill,” wrote user “hepdog.”
“I can’t wait until the ‘expert consulting firm’ comes back with the same recommendation as the LTFPC, after untold thousands of taxpayer dollars,” wrote JohnStark.
While many of the comments came from people who believe the School Committee made the wrong choice and is just “passing the buck” on the decision to consolidate, those who stood against consolidation are still making their voices heard.
“There is no educational basis to consolidate Warwick’s high schools. They each have slightly more students than studies show is ideal. It is not just class size but also grade and school size that should be considered when determining whether to consolidate high schools,” wrote Bob Savage.
In the 64 comments posted between Dec. 12 and Dec. 19, a number of points and counterpoints were raised. There were jabs at the City Council and Mayor Scott Avedisian for not providing the schools with more funding. Others said the decision wrongfully wasted the time of members of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee and asked why consultants were not hired in the first place. Other users questioned what would need to be cut to cover the cost of this consultant, and pointed out that families will continue to put their kids into private schools that provide more programs.
On the other side of the debate, others applauded the decision to call in the experts, repeating that smaller class sizes are more important than saving money and calling the plan rushed.
There has also been a lot of talk about School Committee member Karen Bachus’ comments that a member of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee told three members of City Council that the plan to consolidate the district to two high schools and two junior highs has been in place since January, months before the vote to close Gorton failed and the request for a new plan was put forward.
D’Agostino says that is not true.
“No plan was ever written. We had a number of proposals. There were other proposals brought up and discussed,” he said.
He went on to explain that other grade configurations such as a 7 to 12 model or a kindergarten through 8 model were also discussed. The idea to change to the two-high school, two-junior high model was mentioned, but high schools were not the focus of the committee at that time.
“Our focus that January was on Gorton,” said D’Agostino.
When the committee started fresh in June, they started by looking at the feasibility of consolidation, the decline in enrollment and the current student population before discussing specific plans.
D’Agostino said the concept of the two-high school, two-junior high model was a thought and one of many concepts explored by the committee at times, but it was never a written plan until the committee presented it to the School Committee this month.