Friction over role of school consultant
After a lengthy process that started in March, the subcommittee drawing up a Request for Proposals (RFP) to hire an outside consultant to examine the school district and create a long-term plan has a draft RFP to be presented to School Committee members for discussion this coming Tuesday.
The subcommittee met Tuesday night to go over comments received from the city planning department, the school administration and other officials after presenting them with a draft of the RFP seeking feedback.
The RFP calls for “a thorough, objective study from a competent organization that evaluates the educational system (K-12 curriculum, demographics, facilities, educational outcomes) and establishes long-term strategic actions/costs based on these factors.”
The RFP asks firms to present a minimum of two, but no more than three, plans for Warwick Public Schools, describing the advantages and disadvantages of each plan, as well as separating each plan into 3-year, 5-year, 10-year, 15-year and 20-year increments.
According to the draft RFP, “The study should be driven by achieving educational goals that benefit students such as determining optimal grade configuration and school size to ensure that complex curriculum goals may be achieved (such as Common Core, all-day kindergarten) as well as providing an environment that maximizes social development and extracurricular participation; achieving curriculum enhancement at all grade levels; and the least disruptive process that ensures that current students’ educational, social and extracurricular opportunities and academic achievements are not compromised.”
The RFP also asks firms to “review, confirm and consider” information from a number of reports to determine if it is sufficient or deficient, including demographic projections from the 5-year long-term facilities planning report; the 5-year district strategic plan (2013-2018); technology report completed by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE); union contracts; and federal mandates, among others.
While it was pleased with comments from the city planning department, such as including demographic enrollments from 1965 to the present, and officials like RIDE school construction coordinator Joseph DaSilva, who recommended listing district assets in a separate appendix of the RFP, the subcommittee was not as favorable regarding comments from Superintendent Richard D’Agostino, who felt any plan beyond 10 years is not realistic due to the constantly changing educational landscape and concerns about such a timeline being too costly. The superintendent also felt much of what was included in the RFP was either redundant, as it duplicated work already performed by experienced and trained personnel, or usurped the authority of the administration and teaching staff.
“I sincerely believe comments by the superintendent misconstrued the role and purpose of this RFP,” said subcommittee member Neena Savage. “Our hope is the school department will work collaboratively with us and the School Committee to accomplish the purposes for which this is intended.”
Savage said she felt it wasn’t appropriate for the subcommittee to address many of the issues highlighted by the superintendent, deeming them issues for the School Committee.
“Whether or not the school department feels this process is productive or worthwhile is an issue for the School Committee,” she said. “This is a planning tool to be used by the School Committee and school department. I feel confident with what we’ve worked on and provided.”
Subcommittee member Jennifer Mann, a former director of planning for Care New England, said just because course standards have been adopted doesn’t mean there’s only one way to deliver those standards.
“There are different ways to do it,” she said. “If you don’t look at the type of education and how it’s delivered, then you won’t know what building uses will be needed.”
Mann also said she felt the process was not too long.
Another point of contention from the superintendent was that he felt it was inappropriate for a consultant to deem reports sufficient or deficient.
“This was not done to undermine the school department, but to take into account important materials in those documents,” Savage said. “The role is not to revisit [the documents] but to make sure the relevant information of the documents is fully reviewed and understood before making a final recommendation.”
Touching on the point about union contracts, subcommittee member Camille Vella-Wilkinson, the Ward 3 representative on the City Council, said, “It’s important for the consultant to understand the fiscal constraints of the [union] contract.”
Another point the sides disagree on is how the cost of the project should be presented. Instead of including an hourly rate, as contained in the draft RFP, the superintendent recommended asking for a “lump sum amount” or stipulating an amount not to be exceeded.
“We want to know how much each staff person costs per hour, for example if you have a clerk that makes $50 an hour versus a project coordinator that makes $300 an hour, we want to know that because maybe we could save some money,” said subcommittee chairwoman Karen Bachus, one of two School Committee members on the subcommittee.
Subcommittee members also said they were concerned about additional costs being added on and how fast the lump sum would be used up.
Warwick Teachers Union President George Landrie attended the meeting and shared some thoughts during public comment at the end of the meeting.
“Looking at populations from 1964 to 2024 is a wide span and it’s good to look at, but I can remember a couple sessions back in the ’60s and class sizes today are not as large,” he said. “We learned that the best education happens in smaller classes. If you close schools, you get larger class sizes and I could tell you about all the disadvantages of that.”
Landrie added, “I find it funny that the administration looked at the RFP and was highly critical of it; there’s a lot of good work here.”
Bachus said she hopes the RFP would go out to bid by mid-August and expects to receive proposals by October or November.
Savage called the RFP a great opportunity for the city and schools and said she’s excited to be a part of it.
“This process came about due to the issues with the last go-around,” she said, referring to the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s recommendation to consolidate Gorton and Aldrich junior highs and re-purpose Veterans Memorial High School as a super junior high and splitting the Vets students among Pilgrim and Toll Gate, a move that was tabled by the School Committee in favor of hiring the outside consultant following public backlash and the belief by some that it was a tainted process. “Our goal is to work with the School Committee and the school department to come up with a process and plan that works with the community, and this is the first step toward that.”
Bachus said the subcommittee wants what’s best for the school system.
“The RFP is a comprehensive call for proposals to improve Warwick Public Schools, both now and for our future, in line with the city’s Comprehensive Plan,” she said when asked to sum up the RFP. “This has been a great process. The people have worked very hard; it’s been a great team and a lot of contribution. It’s very positive.”
Vella-Wilkinson said the RFP could become a new model.
“I think you will see other districts wanting to do this,” she said.
The School Committee will meet Tuesday, July 15 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at Toll Gate High School.