November 24, 2014
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Stuck in neutral
Failure to consolidate could end up costing system $23M, says D’Agostino

Warwick schools are stuck in neutral, and some fear unless action is taken soon to address declining enrollment with the consolidation of operations – especially secondary schools – millions will be spent needlessly and opportunities such as universal all-day kindergarten will be postponed.

Time is working against the system.

Last month, the department notified 20 teachers they would be laid off – the maximum allowable under contract – by the next academic year. But with no long-range plan, the system can only respond to short-term needs.

Vets High needs a new roof costing an estimated $2.2 million, and Gorton and Aldrich junior high schools are required to meet fire code regulations, an action that has already been delayed, by 2015 at a cost of more than $2 million. Yet the future of the buildings is uncertain.

If those improvements were made using bonds, as the committee has approved, and the committee then closes those schools, the district would be faced with paying the full balance on the debt immediately.

It’s not that there haven’t been plans.

Two years ago, a short-term facilities committee recommended closure of Gorton. The School Committee balked. They wanted additional study with a more comprehensive look at the entire system.

A 15-member study committee including representatives from the public and the city administration went back to the drawing table. Unanimously, they recommended the closure of Gorton, Aldrich and Vets. The plan called for this to be the last year for Vets as a high school, with it re-opening in the fall of 2015 as a middle school. Gorton and Aldrich would close their doors in June of 2015, thereby consolidating the system from three junior and senior high schools to two of each. In addition, with a middle school model, sixth-graders would be housed in the same schools as seventh- and eighth-graders. This would open up the rooms for all-day kindergarten in the elementary schools.

Under pressure from students, parents and teachers, the committee tabled the plan and approved a resolution to retain a consultant to analyze enrollment projections and the system’s buildings – to give the committee an outside assessment.

Now, it appears, it will be another full year before a plan can be implemented.

Meanwhile, the district faces teacher contract talks – the current contract expires this August – and if it is to move ahead with a middle school model, thereby freeing rooms at the elementary level for full-day kindergarten, it needs to address middle school teacher certification.

In a recent interview, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the department is looking at different options for the next five years and that “the committee is working on recommendations.” Steps are being taken to implement full-day kindergarten in several schools – he didn’t name them – where there is sufficient space and the funding. This is considered by Jennifer Ahearn as a transitioning step to a goal she and other committee members would like to achieve.

But delaying consolidation, which D’Agostino says is inevitable and will act to improve the system, could be costly, forcing the system to make cuts into programs, thereby impairing the quality of education.

Committee Chair Bethany Furtado is in agreement.

“Every day lost is lost education for these kids,” she said. Furtado is frustrated, saying the department is caught in a “state of flux.”

“The big picture is that we need to progress and to continually move forward,” she said.

That’s not happening.

Further delays and more study, however, threaten to put the system in reverse.

D’Agostino itemizes the costs. He combines the costs of making improvements to schools that would be closed with the lost savings if they were closed, as was recommended but tabled, to come up with a total of $23 million over 10 years. That’s money, he reasons, that could be put into programs and implementing all-day kindergarten.

“We want every student to have the opportunity,” he says.

Yet he recognizes there are emotional ties to schools and closing them is a “bitter pill” for many. It’s a tough decision.

“If this was a business, some parts of the system would have been closed down years ago,” he says.

Mark Carruolo, the mayor’s chief of staff, sees it that way, too. Carruolo represented the administration on the study committee.

“What do you do?” he asks of the School Committee that has sidetracked school consolidation seemingly for the indefinite future. “Do you ask for more money [from the city] when there is the funds in the system by decreasing costs and taking those savings to reinvest in your future?”

Hiring an outside consultant, he says, won’t produce a different outcome.

“It doesn’t matter. The solution is the same,” he said.

But the delay could be costly in more than dollars. Carruolo sees the inaction as undermining confidence in Warwick schools and demoralizing teachers. They are concerns echoed by Furtado.

“Are you going to let everyone suffer? I don’t think so,” he says.

So, could the committee, which tabled a vote on consolidation and voted to bring in an outside consultant, bring the motion back to the table? Could it still act in time to close Gorton and Aldrich before needing to spend $2 million to meet fire code improvements in 2015? Could it close Vets as of June and commence renovations so it would re-open in the fall of 2015 as a middle school?

Might Warwick have all-day K by the fall of 2015, too?

More to the point, would the vote be different?

Ahearn, Eugene Nadeau and Karen Bachus favored going to an outside consultant. Furtado and Terri Medeiros favored moving ahead with the plan.

Ahearn expressed her frustration that Bachus, who heads the committee drafting the bid specifications for the consultant, hasn’t moved faster. A single meeting was held where Bachus refused to set a timetable and said the job will take as long as it needs to be completed. Under the best of circumstances, Ahearn doesn’t imagine the committee will have a report until this fall. Furtado thinks that’s the case as well. That moves school consolidation another academic year away at the least.

“I’m very upset about that. We need a timeline,” Ahearn said.

Ahearn concedes that the committee should have pushed for a vote, rather than tabling action, although it’s probable she wouldn’t have supported consolidation.

“At the end of the day, if we had closures, that wouldn’t improve learning in the buildings,” she says.

She doesn’t believe consolidation would save as much as D’Agostino estimates. She says the city should increase school appropriations.

“There’s no priority on education, even with the mayor,” she said.

She claims the mayor’s attitude is “to heck with the students. I’m taking care of my side of the street.” She said schools “are stuck with the leftovers” once the city side of the budget is satisfied. She said the 54.6 percent of the budget going to schools is less support than what schools get in other municipalities, which she put as high as 65 percent elsewhere.

Mayor Scott Avedisian attended the only meeting to draft the specifications for the consultant and sought to establish a deadline for an outcome. It was at that point Bachus said it was going to take as long as it took.

In an interview yesterday, the mayor said the school system is faced with a “crumbling infrastructure” of old schools. He doesn’t see a solution in simply fixing up old buildings, although at this point, building new ones doesn’t look to be an option.

Avedisian sees the system as having become “bogged down” and incapable of making decisions that would generate savings.

He offered some hope, however.

“If they do consolidation and quantify savings,” he said, “I would let them keep that savings.” Those are funds that could go into all-day K as well as building improvements.

Such a commitment would be subject to council approval, although the mayor could veto the council budget.

Ahearn reiterates that the emphasis needs to be learning, not buildings.

“We need to get student learning to a higher level,” she said. “We don’t have a good handle on that.”

Nadeau places much of the blame on the city administration.

“What they’re doing to the school department is outrageous,” he said of the city’s insistence that schools assume principal and interest costs of bonding for building improvements. The committee approved that action.

“We had no choice,” Nadeau counters.

By the same token, Nadeau is a proponent of all-day K and middle schools. As he sees it, those changes should be instituted over a period of time, with the middle schools being introduced at the existing three junior highs before any consolidation. All-day K would follow once classrooms at the elementary level have been freed.

“It may take three or four years,” he says.

But looking at where the system is today, and unless action is taken, it may take even longer.


Comments
11 comments on this item

What the Warwick Public School System needs is stability. Constant threats of school closures, and on occasion actual school closures, have caused parents of current and potential Warwick Public Schools students to lose faith in the system. The mayor, with the support of Mr. Howell of the Warwick Beacon, makes it appear that it is obvious that the high schools should consolidate. By reading their comments, you would think that we have three small high schools and it is wasteful to keep them all open. Actually we have three large high schools; each has over 900 students. As I mentioned in my earliest comments, studies have demonstrated that the ideal sized high school should have between 600-900 students. Other than cost savings, what is the educational and social benefit of consolidating the high schools? There is none. Warwick high schools’ NECAP scores have improved as the schools have come closer to a population of 900. Change for change’s sake only leads to creating an unstable school system that will in turn push families into leaving Warwick or others will avoid moving here because they do not want to subject their children to such an unstable school environment caused by the constant threat of unnecessary consolidation that has no educational or social benefit.

If Warwick Public Schools want to move to the middle school concept, the existing junior high schools apparently have plenty of room to accommodate another grade. By moving the sixth grade out of the elementary schools, it will leave room in the existing elementary schools for all-day kindergarten. As a result, no consolation is needed to accomplish the move to middle schools. We in Warwick have been told since the 1980s that Gorton and Aldrich are old schools that need to close due to cost of maintenance, but the truth is that these are extremely well-built schools that are probably in better shape than Pilgrim High School. The old Lockwood Junior High School was not torn down after it was closed. As with Gorton and Aldrich, it was such a well-built school that it was converted to an apartment complex that is still there today.

Year by year Warwick appears to slipping into the situation that Coventry was in in the middle and late 1970s. Coventry’s tax base in the 1970s was made up of older taxpayers who were not willing to approve necessary funds for its school system. It was so bad that in at least two of those years Coventry did not have the funds to field high school sports teams. We are approaching that situation now. Look at the comments in Warwick Beacon by its readers and even its writers, such as this article by John Howell, “Stuck in Neutral.” The focus is all about costs with little concern for the impact of consolidation on education. For all the taxpayers without children in the Warwick School system, it is also in your interest to properly fund the schools and provide a stable environment for its students because an increase, or at least stabilization, of property values depends on it. If people leave or decide not to move to Warwick to avoid a City whose older tax base is not willing to support its schools, that will continue to decrease demand for housing and, as a result, property values. Small short-term tax dollar savings by unnecessary consolidations may provide short-term savings but will cause long term harm to the City of Warwick as a whole.

Jen Ahearn rightfully accuses the Mayor of shorting the school dept $ on their side of the budget...and then what does John Howell do? Let's the mayor rant about "crumbling infrastructure" of the buildings?? I'm sorry I didn't know that the mayor was serving his first term. What HAS HE done about "crumbling infrastructure" in his FOURTEEN YEARS AS MAYOR???? What has he done to better fund the schools? Avedesian has the audacity to say if the schools realize savings they can keep them? Wow! Thanks for nothing! The Beacon has become a joke, this article is the most one sided thing you guys have put out in awhile. No one challenges the Superintendents numbers?? $23 million in repairs needed in 2 or 3 buildings??? I feel as if any realistic person could look at that number and know that it's completely false! John Howell didn't even have the guts challenge him on it. He then let's Beth Furtado talk about how each day we fail to act hurts students....but eliminating a full time librarian last year helped students Beth?? Embarrasing!!! Beth Furtado voted to TABLE the LTFPC plan, she has no right to now say we needed to consolidate then. Where are the courage of your convictions Beth?? You are supposed to be a leader, not the left arm of the Superintendent. The mayor, Superintendent, and Chairwoman of the schools have ALL lost total credibility on this issue. What's worse is the local paper that should be the "watch-dog" instead serves as a talking point to each one of them. To quote Bruce Springsteen "...the poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be". Once again the talking points are out. Close Vets, Close Gorton and Aldrich because we said so that's why! It's about time people stand up and challenge these "facts"...because every time these people are challenged, they fold!

Multiple points to be made here. First, Warwick will spend $17,000 per pupil this year. A lack of funds is clearly not a problem, unless you are a public sector employee, in which case a lack of funds is always, always, always the problem.

Clear thinking city residents have known for at least five years that consolidation should occur, and two high schools were not necessary. The fact that the school committee tabled the hard work of a committed group is an act of absolute cowardice. All while the mayor continues to hide under his desk, except to say that he would "let" the school department "keep" any savings from consolidation. Note to Mr. Avedesian: It's not your money!

Finally, it's always humorous to hear school department personnel make comparisons with business. “If this was a business, some parts of the system would have been closed down years ago,” says the superintendent. Mr. D'Agostino, if this was a business, you would have been fired long ago. If this was a business, the board of directors would not be hiring a consulting firm after a clear and much needed recommendation was on the table. If this was a business, there would be no limits on the number of employees who could be laid off because they are not needed. I can only assume that Mr. D'Agostino's experience in the private sector is zero. You would be hard pressed to find a more glaring example of a complete abdication of responsibility than the school committee, mayor, and superintendent. It's costly, embarrassing, and sends a message to any corporation that is considering a move to Warwick that leadership here is engaged in little more than collective navel gazing.

Five months ago we were ahead of where we are now. "Stuck in neutral"? Anyone who's ever driven a car can see we're in reverse.

First of all I don't have any dog in this fight. I just can't stand the fact that these people continue to say that consolidation is the only way to make this district work. This group can't get their story straight. I'm not suggesting that there aren't areas to cut, but to continually say that closing schools is the only way out is just as short sighted. Your problem should be with Beth Furtado. She's the one who said that we had to close the schools, it was an urgent matter. She then voted in favor or tabling the consolidation plan! Now she's trying to sound the alarm that this process is taking too long? Well which one is it? You can't vote to table something, and then get upset that you aren't getting results. What kind of leadership is that? Now they go to the Beacon with this garbage trying to sound the alarm again. I bet once again they try to somehow pass this plan because they can't take a stance on anything and they'll fear the consultant will have a differing view. Also someone should tell John Howell that the original plan never guaranteed the middle school model. Nor did it say anything about all day k being implemented. That was the HOPE of the school cmte. had they not tabled the plan. Once again you don't let the facts get in the way of your argument: "in addition with a middle school model, sixth graders would be housed in same schools as 7th and 8th graders. This would open up the rooms for all day kindergarten in the elementary schools". That makes it sound as if that was part of the plan, that was not part of the plan. Once again, that is just thrown out there as if it was so. Furtado should step down. How many committees? How many consolidation proposals is she going to oversee? At some point some people just have to realize they are not being well represented.

John Strark, just proved my point. He, like the mayor and Mr. Howell, just assume it is necessary to consolidate the high schools and that it should have been done a long time ago. Why? How would it improve the educational and social environment of the students to consolidate already large high schools? It wouldn't and there is no data to suggest otherwise. Conservative/Tea Party arguments that governmental agencies should be run like a business are baseless. The goal of a school is to educate and socialize students, not to make a profit or run it at the lowest possible cost without regard for educational outcomes. We are not a poor community but we will become one if our school system remains unstable due to the constant threat of consolidations and the disruption caused by actual consolidations. Our City and its students deserve better.

I realize that school population is declining, and therefore some form of consolidation is necessary. I have an idea, but it requires spending, so I'm sure that it would get shot down immediately. It is my understanding that the land that Gorton & John Greene sit on was deeded to the city for educational purposes and is therefore not sellable; therefore, if the city were to close Gorton, what would become of that parcel of land? Here are my thoughts: temporarily close Gorton. Knock down Gorton & Green. Build a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient city-wide middle school. Close Aldrich...that land is a goldmine. I know that Winman is part of the Toll Gate complex, and that's the city's "little baby" but, oh well...Will this cost money?? Of course it will. In the long run will it save money? I'm not even close to being an expert, but I believe it will, and I believe that we should do the same for the high schools once the middle schools are done. Just sayin'....................

I agree/appreciate with most comments, both in and about this article regarding the future of our schools. The stalemate here,understandably, seems to be those thinking within their own responsibilities/"box", and in traditional, longstanding models, rather than in terms of collaborative, innovative, long term solutions. However, that is how every major change begins and it is a process to bring everyone together, understand all perspectives, and change traditional thinking for the common good. This article, the viewpoints John brings to the public, and the subsequent comments are exactly the dialog needed for real change, everyone's voice is important and needs to be part of the solution. For what its worth, here's my voice at this point...

The LTFPC did a decent job within the limits they were given. They crunched data and came up with their best option to save money/work within the constraints of the current/established limitations. The Mayor is correct in saying that the infrastructure across the system is crumbling, but ultimately the proposed LTFPC solution would do little to improve that situation or create a future vision for our schools we could all be excited about and look forward to for our children. Those that advocate for a middle school model and all day kindergarten are correct, both should be a focus, even within our current buildings/structure there are some changes that could be made immediately to begin that process. Why is it that all our sixth graders (or actually all 4th grade and up as in many other districts) do not currently rotate teachers for subjects at all elementary schools, even those schools with two classrooms per grade could benefit from changing classes for Math and ELA (and those with three classes could add another subject). Has significant thought gone into making one of our junior highs a citywide sixth grade? Why did the proposed change focus on uprooting one geographical segment of our population (I live in Toll Gate district), and only designating funds toward updating one school? Shouldn't we have the goal of updating all buildings and creating stronger educational offerings across the city? Equity across the City should be a major guiding principle in any plan and I do not believe there was a significant mention/discussion of that fundamental educational planning concept, that I believe any major system change should hold as a top priority. I do disagree with the comment that businesses do not hire consultants for long term planning. Successful businesses, even very large ones, understand that some expertise makes absolutely no financial sense to have in-house and facility long term planning is a classic example that warrants a national, well respected consultant to bring the knowledge and expertise of innovative solutions to a local level. I agree that some form of consolidation/reconfiguration should occur in Warwick, but maybe we need to think in terms of educational programming instead of geographical districts, especially at secondary level. Imagine the educational offerings (and cost savings) we could provide our students if they were grouped by interests instead of geography? Wouldn't it be nice to create a plan that improves the education and physical environment for all students across our city? Maybe we could institute the first public school IB program in the state? I certainly don't have all the solutions, but still have many questions regarding the full extent of options explored. We need to envision a bright future for our schools, identify the true infrastructure and educational needs, long term costs to update/maintain our buildings and technology and collaborate across all boundaries to achieve all in one long term plan with the City fully engaged as a partner. The City of Warwick also needs to view the schools as a critical partner in City planning. The Warwick Comprehensive Plan should acknowledge and fully incorporate the schools as key factors in the long term vitality/viability of the City. If we value neighborhood elementary schools (or schools at any geographical level) then they should be viewed as integral community centers/resources in City planning and there should be long term initiatives to better incorporate them into all neighborhood/City plans, including improved walking/biking to access them and partnering with the schools to

jointly plan, update, and fund facilities and grounds for appropriate use by all residents, to be viewed as community resources, not just "schools". The joint use of schools is a common solution by many communities to increasing financial constraints and should be fully explored as an option not only for increased City use/funding but also for business and nonprofit partnerships/sponsorships. I was a bit disheartened by the disconnect that seemed to exist within the Warwick Comprehensive Planning process and the school LTFP processes, occurring during the same general time period but neither recognizing or engaging the other as a key component of the others' plan.

I do believe that hope should not be lost, nor should we think that the past couple of years have been wasted. I believe that everyone involved has the same goal of the best possible educational system for our City, its only a matter of defining what that is, how to obtain it and over time period is obtainable.

Very thoughtful leadership, committee and private citizen discussions regarding the schools are taking place across the city, awareness of the situation has never been higher, and it is the perfect time for substantial, long term change. We shouldn't focus on blame, the situation we are currently face is a product of decades and not one that anyone intended. Many communities face similar, if not worse issues, and our energy is best spent on positive, forward thinking solutions. Even if it takes a year or longer (and I say this with two children that will continue to deal with short term issues and will not benefit from long term change), if done carefully and thoughtfully, with innovative and creative expertise, the future of our entire city will benefit greatly. Warwick has the ability to be a state and national model for reform, and it can be done...don't give up hope, continue to voice your opinion, offer your help, and support those who are engaged in long term, substantial change.

Mr. Savage: First, I did not introduce the comparison of schools to business; that was the work of Mr. D'Agostino. But once that comparison is introduced, as it's done so casually and selectively by those who have spent no time in business, the comparison is fair game. I did not suggest that government agencies should be run like a business, and the "Conservative/Tea Party..." reference seems rather odd. Only in Rhode Island would a school built to accommodate 2500 students, and currently enrolling 900 be considered "large". Most importantly, if you are truly interested in improving the "educational and social environment of the students", I'm sure you'll join me and many others in embracing vouchers for all high school aged students in the city. That way, students and their families could choose the school that truly meets their needs without regard to finances. Which takes priority, Mr. Savage, the "educational and social environment of the students" and their needs, or clinging to an antiquated and crumbling status quo? Before responding, consider the last time a non-Warwick resident said: "We'd like to move to Warwick to our kids can attend Warwick Vets."

I do not want to simply repeat what I wrote in earlier comments I made to the Beacon. So briefly, this is one study that found that an ideal sized high school normally should not include more than 900 students: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/hsns/HSNSbrief1.pdf (University of Texas). As I explained in detail in earlier comments, ideal school size is not determined by building capacity. Starting arguments, often heard on talk radio, with "only in Rhode Island" is getting tiresome and is empty of meaning. It is often stated by those that want to appear sophisticated and worldly compared with provincial Rhode Island but are not actually making sophisticated or insightful arguments. Mr. Stark's proposal that students should be allowed to attended the high school of their choice within the city is not a voucher program. A voucher program is when students are given a certain dollar amount in the form of a "voucher" that they can use to attend attend a "school of their choice." It normally does not cover the full cost of most quality schools and therefore is not really a legitimate "school choice" alternative. It takes money out of public education to provide subsidies to parents who have already made the decision to send their children to private schools. It is a favorite response to any argument concerning public education from those that actually do not support public education and simply want its cost to be reduced to as much as possible. Finally, it is "rather odd" to suggest, given the overwhelming response from Warwick Vets students and their parents against the consolidation, that if given the choice, Warwick Vets students may chose to attend one of the other Warwick High Schools.

The school department is in a terrible state of disorganization. The left hand doesn't know what the right is doing. How about this example: While we are trying to figure out how many students there are in each school's area in order to figure out if a school should close, you have schools like Cedar Hill which are BURSTING at the seams with 4 fourth grade classes and 3 of every other grade. They have classes with 25+ kids in them. The shocker is that a lot of these kids don't even live in the Cedar Hill area. They have gotten permission from higher ups to send their kids there for whatever reason. This is ridiculous! Why should the kids have to deal with such large classes, which inevitably will affect their education just because some parent thinks their kid should go there instead of their home school? How about the administration cleans up this problem before trying to consolidate??

Completely agree with the Cedar Hill issues and it serves as a perfect example of the need for a comprehensive, long term look at all the facilities. When Potowomut was closed, none of the funds saved went into improving the Cedar Hill facility or the addressing needs that arise from adding 100+ students to the school. Some grades have over 25 bodies (and over 28 when adjusted) while others have 14. There is no policy to balance class size in the City, nor look at redistricting (or stricter districting) to make better use of current elementary facilities. Many families(at least 50 kids in the past few years) have moved or sent kids to private schools as a direct result of the dissatisfaction with the school. The parking lot is unsafe, there is no space to hold school or even grade level events (with 75+ in a grade and an all purpose room with a fire code capacity of 185 you cannot even invite two parents to see a grade level performance without safety issues), and some classrooms you can barely walk around in. In addition, there have been constant health concerns of students and staff which may be from overcrowd classes and outdated mechanicals/roofing. I think many were fearful that the same fate of Cedar Hill would occur at the secondary level with the consolidation plan.The one thing many of these facilities have going for them is the space to compensate for outdated designed/crumbling facilities. If we fill the secondary schools to capacity without major facility improvements over the long term, education and our children will suffer. Capacity needs to be analyzed according to the modern day educational needs, not by the capacity these buildings were designed for decades ago. We need to be looking at innovative approaches to education and long term facility needs, not closing buildings to save money that won't even cover annual maintenance needs on these deteriorating facilities. The problems are much larger than the LTFPC was tasked or had the authority to solve. The process and solution has to be a collaboration between the City and school system because they are dependent on each other, both in success and failure.

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