May 4, 2009

Warwick Closes School, Approves Budget Number

Marc Comtois

The Warwick School Committee voted to accept the recommendation of the School Consolidation Advisory Committee and close John Greene Elementary School. Prior to the vote to close John Greene an amendment to redistrict a portion of the area that feeds Warwick Neck school from Warwick Neck to Oakland Beach was approved 5-0. As to the vote to close Greene, there was some confusion as, at first, it appeared as if the vote was unanimous (5-0). However, School Committee member Patrick Maloney asked for a re-vote so that he could clarify that his vote was against closing Greene.

Four of the five School Committee members (Maloney, Paul Cannistra, Chair Chris Friel and Vice-Chair Lucille Mota-Costa--Bethany Furtado did not explain her reasoning) explained their reasoning throughout the decision-making process, which was much the same as I've previously blogged about.

Once the vote to close Greene was finalized, some members of the public--comprising parents of John Greene students and members of the Parents of Warwick Schools--stood up and then turned their backs to the School Committee in protest. Throughout this process, several have indicated frustration with the lack of two-way communication and, without being able to get direct answers from the Administration, have attempted to answer questions on their own. In some cases, this led to misunderstanding and, eventually, deep distrust of the School Administration.

For example, there had been much concern and talk concerning expenditures at the Crowne Plaza hotel and for "champagne" that were listed in the check registers available on-line. As explained by Mota-Costa, the hotel bills were evidence of a requirement by an accreditation organization (I believe NEASC) that the School District house them and feed them while they assess the city schools. (Like it or not, a cost of doing business--hopefully one that can change). The bill for "champagne" was actually money paid to an employee with the last name of Champagne.

While having access to open records is manifestly a good thing, records are only part of a bigger picture. Concerned parents, taxpayers and bloggers should use this information responsibly as they seek to propose alternative solutions. And they (we) should refrain from making assumptions before making accusations.

By the same token, the Administration and School Committee could have better refuted these claims if they had addressed them in a timely manner--ie; at the public comment sessions--instead of waiting until the end of the process. Perhaps some limited response should be allowed at public comment sessions in the future (not just after the session, when some answers were provided to those who asked--but not the public). Instead, the time lag between question and answer resulted in the two groups talking at each other. As is so often the case, a lack of communication caused distrust and fomented suspicions that were, and will be, hard to overcome.

For his part, Maloney has explained (on the Parents of Warwick Schools forum) that he was confused by the way the voting was handled and thought that he would have had another chance to explain himself prior to the actual vote. Part of the proposed budget is to pay the City of Warwick back for the cost overruns of the School Department last year. Maloney wanted to split that payment over two years, which would have enabled keeping Greene (or any school) open while a more comprehensive school consolidation plan was studied.

Cannistra expressed his empathy for the parents and students involved. He also cast blame for the current problem on the past decisions of previous School Committees who took the easy road when it came to making tough decisions. As he said, now that road "has come to an end." He emphasized that he had a fiduciary responsibility to all of Warwick's 85,000 residents and that, unfortunately, nothing in life was guaranteed. Something we should all know and that, like it or not, our children must learn. Friel discussed his thought process at length, particularly the dropping demographics and increased costs, and also noted that 90% of the savings in closing a school comes from reducing the staff.

Once these presentations were over, the vote on the amendment was called and approved 5-0. The vote to close Greene was called, and after some confusion, the final tally was 4-1 in favor.

After the vote, in what was perhaps the most politically charged incident of the night, Paul Cannistra called out Councilwoman Helen Taylor for grandstanding at one of the Public Comment sessions last week. He stated that her facts were wrong, that she was irresponsible in her presentation and that it was ironic that she would call out the School Committee for being fiscally irresponsible when she had voted against savings (via city employee contract negotiations) herself and that she had not even seen fit to attend a meeting where the School Committee spoke to the City Council last year. He said he wouldn't stand for her grandstanding any more. (For his part, Cannistra voted against the recent teacher contract re-negotiation because he felt it didn't go far enough).

Finally, the School Committee voted to accept the School Administration's budget request and moved it to the city-side for review and approval. Line-by-line review will be done at a later date (once the city approves the actual amount for appropriation).

ADDENDUM: ProJo story here. ABC 6 video here.