The Warwick School Committee unanimously codified two new policies and approved multiple construction projects during their meeting last Thursday, held at Pilgrim High School. The first policy pertained to a district-wide ban on cell phones and electronic devices during the school day, and the other would allow the school to utilize a collection agency to chase chronically indebted school lunch accounts – which amounts to about $80,000 in debt for the district.
The ban on electronic devices will go into effect immediately, but the committee said that a “ramp up” period would occur throughout the remainder of the year to educate students and parents about the policy before full enforcement would begin the following school year.
The policy prevents students from utilizing any electronic device – from cell phones, smartphones, smart watches, etc. – “during school hours,” not just in the classroom, and aims to prevent students from causing disruptions in classes, prevent lewd texting during school hours and prevent cheating and other violations of local, state and federal laws through their use.
School Committee Vice Chairwoman Judy Cobden pointed out another reason she felt the ban was a good idea.
“It's used for bullying a lot, and it's very, very dangerous for these kids, that are videotaping kids doing stuff to other kids and then it goes viral,” Cobden said. “We need to stop that. That's just disgusting behavior and I don't like to see it.”
Prior to this policy being passed, cell phone and electronic device bans were handled on a school-to-school basis. This policy is the district’s first attempt at a singular, district-wide policy.
The committee threw their support behind the policy vigorously, despite some parents and students coming out against the policy through emails and online via sites like Facebook.
“Teachers and parents who have concerns about this can certainly call us. This is about our children's education. That's the bottom line,” committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus said. “Some parents for some reason were upset about this, and I really don't understand it. I thought that your children came to school to be educated, not to play on cell phones or any other electronic device.”
School committee member David Testa dispelled a notion that preventing students from having their phones might create a crisis where the student’s parents would be unable to contact them in an emergency situation.
“This is pretty simple. I have a child who brings their phone to school. Don't use it. Not complicated. Not hard,” he said. “It's our job as parents to make sure it's clear to not use the phone. If there is an emergency, generations upon generations of people have called the office, and then they get in touch with the student. It's not impossible to get in touch with a student.”
Testa urged that the school administration at the school level need to support teachers, who will be the ones dealing with the brunt of students disobeying the policy.
“The teacher is the first line here, so the teachers need to be supported,” he said. “Because if the teacher is going to follow the rules that this body lays down and not get supported by the administration, then we have a big problem.”
The committee then unanimously approved second passage of a measure that would enable a three-strike system for parents who are chronically delinquent and behind on school lunch payments.
The committee heard testimony from finance director Anthony Ferrucci that the school faces $80,000 in debt from delinquent, unpaid lunches. The policy would enable the district to send a debt collection agency after delinquent accounts following three warning notices.
After a second notice, students who have delinquent accounts will only have a sunbutter and jelly sandwich meal made available to them, which is a standard menu item and includes the normal vegetables, fruit and milk similar to other menu items. If the debt isn’t cleared a week after the third warning, the account will be “turned over to the legal department for pursuit through small claims court.”
Again, this policy drew support from the whole committee, who lamented that $80,000 would be a huge windfall in a district currently getting by through various damaging means such as cutting custodians and the mentoring program.
Cobden described witnessing warning letters being drafted and sent out to delinquent accounts, which she described as “frightening” in regards to the sheer number of them.
“It was more than a ream of paper,” she said. “We want our kids to have the best, and we’re $80,000 in debt for lunch? Please pay. I'm all for this.”
Also approved at the meeting were two large-scale, bond-funded projects (to be taken from the school’s $40 million approved school construction bond passed in November, 2018) to occur at Toll Gate High School this summer, including $275,000 in roof repairs and $553,560 to repair the school’s fire alarm system.
Another $6,160 in bond funding was approved for conceptual designs to abate asbestos in Oakland Beach and Scott Elementary Schools during the summer of 2020, and $17,680 in conceptual design work for ADA improvements to be made at Cedar Hill Elementary, also to be conducted in 2020.
Also approved – but unfortunately not covered by bond funding – was a maximum amount of $100,000 to conduct repair work on the boiler system at Pilgrim High School, which has apparently degraded to the point where it won’t function during the upcoming winter. Ferrucci lamented that the boilers were scheduled to be transitioned in an HVAC project during the summer of 2020, but assured the committee the work could not wait.
Ferrucci did say, however, that some parts of the boiler may be salvaged to bring the cost down, and that the $100,000 figure was a “worst case scenario” that may, hopefully, be closer to $56,000 in costs.
“It's unfortunate we couldn't get through the next two winters with the current system,” he said.