With less than a month left until Election Day and in the midst of tense consolidation talks, the Beacon polled all four School Committee candidates on the following questions:
- If you were currently a member of the School Committee and the vote were being held today, would you vote to move forward with elementary consolidation? Explain your reasoning.
- The Warwick Teachers Union recently rejected a contract proposal that would have increased their salaries. President Darlene Netcoh said it was "not acceptable at this time" and that the language in the proposal did not sufficiently protect the teaching and learning environment. How do you plan to help resolve the teacher contract negotiations?
- At this point, are there any other issues you feel Warwick voters should know about?
Responses from Karen Bachus, Danny Hall, Dean Johnson, and David Testa are as follows:
On elementary consolidation:
I would put elementary consolidation on hold until 2018. The secondary consolidation did not go smoothly. There are many things on the list for the secondary consolidation that must be completed this school year and next summer to make things right for our students. They deserve nothing less! In addition, in the fall of 2017 the sixth grade is moving from the elementary schools to the junior high schools. We are also rolling out a brand new sixth grade curriculum. This is a huge undertaking. It is imperative that everything is ready for our students when they return from summer vacation. They do not have the time for us to get it right after the fact.
: If I were currently a member of the School Committee and the vote for elementary consolidation were being held today, I would vote “NO.” It isn’t that I am opposed to consolidation, quite the contrary actually. Consolidation is necessary to the city of Warwick due to the declining number in students in the city. I would certainly put off the elementary consolidation until the secondary and middle school consolidations were complete. I feel like September 2017 is far too soon to consolidate. We are almost three months into the new school year and the secondary consolidation continues to pose a problem for students, teachers and parents alike. The questions that arise in my mind are: If the elementary consolidation begins, have we considered the right schools to consolidate? Are the bus routes timely and efficient? Are the walkers safe? Are the children going to have a safe and productive learning environment without the distractions that seem to be making its way through the secondary consolidation right now (i.e. small classrooms with a large amount of students, falling ceiling tiles, equipment failure etc.)? I feel as though we have not addressed all concerns from the students, parents and faculty. The primary consolidation at this point in time would only add to the large list of concerns that everyone has, including myself.
I would vote to postpone for a year so we can get secondary consolidation taken care of. We can look into elementary consolidation next year.
Not for next year because I don’t know if the right three schools were chosen nor have I seen any data supporting the choice of these schools vs. other schools. Further, next year our current 5th and 6th graders are moving up to the middle school (which I wholeheartedly support) and we need to focus on that because every plan will need to be adjusted as it goes (witness secondary consolidation) - so let's focus on the adjustments still being made at the secondary level, the adjustments that we know will occur next year as grades 5 & 6 move up, and hold off elementary consolidation until Sept 2018.
On the teachers contract:
I know many teachers, in Warwick and elsewhere, and it is my experience that many teachers care a great deal about the teaching and learning environment of their students. I believe that many, if not all of our teachers in Warwick Public Schools are more concerned about that environment right now than they are about an increase in their salary.
Our teachers have been working without a contract since September 1, 2015. It is important to note that in previous negotiations our teachers continued working under their old contract until they ratified a successor contract. Unfortunately, that is not what is occurring during these negotiations. The school administration and majority of the Warwick School Committee have declared war on our teachers. Teachers are being threatened with discipline for insubordination if they don’t comply with the rules set forth by Superintendent Philip Thornton.
For example, both Weighting and Cooperative Teaching are vehicles used to help our special education students achieve. The practice of weighting is not being used at this time, and the cooperative teaching formula is not being followed on a consistent basis. In “weighting” a special education student is counted as 1.5 or 2.0 students (criteria based) in a classroom in order to keep class size smaller so that the teacher is able to provide more individualized and differentiated instruction to all students in the class. Many of our classrooms are full at 28 students or more, and there are 14, 15, 16 students in these classrooms with IEPs. We can call it weighting, ratios, percentages, etc., but it is not there to make life easy for teachers. It is there to help all of our students learn and achieve to the best of their ability. Cooperative teaching is a practice whereby a special education teacher teaches with the content specialist teacher if there is a certain percentage of students with IEPs. The special education teacher works with the special education students to provide support and individualize their learning as taught by the content specialist. This is not being done properly and is hurting our most fragile students.
Teachers are also being ordered to use an online grading program called Aspen. Warwick does not have the complete program and most of our teachers have received little to no instruction on the use of Aspen. How can we mandate people to use a tool when they do not know how to use it? The union and management met to work on contract language around Aspen. Management took that language and issued an order that all teaches are to use Aspen for grading. They threatened that failure to do so will result in discipline.
Is this the way that we want to treat our teachers who do their utmost to provide great teaching and learning to our children? No! I should say not. We must repair this; we must acknowledge that we have been violating the contract, apologize to our teachers and school community, and begin working anew with them toward a successor contract that is good for our children. It is only then that we will reach an agreement with our teachers who are the most important individuals when it comes to education.
Where would you be without teachers?
I have been in a union for 12 years. I have also contributed to the administrative sides of negotiations as well. Contract language plays a large role in all union negotiations. With any contract, with all employees, all language should be fair and equitable. A year into the negotiations, it seems as though the negotiations haven’t even begun to finalize. I believe that I could assist in bridging the gap between the union and the administration by bringing composure, compromise and understanding to the table. I understand the frustrations and eagerness to conclude negotiations by both parties. Aside from negotiations being finalized being beneficial for both teachers and administration, I believe it will be the MOST beneficial to the students whose feelings have been pushed to the side for too long. They are extremely important and they are truly what matters.
I agree with Darlene Netcoh. It’s not about the money. It’s about weighting and class sizes. We have 28 kids in a class with 15 IEPs, which by the current contract equates to a class of 35 or 36. The emphasis should be on weighting and quality of education. I believe there will be an impasse until this is solved.
: Based on what was publicly released, it would seem to me that some of the issues should be relatively to resolve if we divorce them from an 'all or nothing' approach. If we address each issue separately, that process can sometimes create openings in the dialogue that may not have existed before. New School Committee members can bring fresh eyes and new thinking on an issue, and that's what I would endeavor to do.
On what further issues are important:
I am very concerned about the lack of a heating system at Veterans Junior High School. If it fails this winter our students will face unknown upset, and even more damage to their education. Our students are not experiments; what they miss this year will be very difficult for them to make up. How can we let this happen? Planning and a regular maintenance schedule must be put in place and followed from now on. We have a responsibility to our children to provide them with an education. Why don’t we plan with the knowledge that our students deserve the best we can possibly give them?
One major concern that I, and many Warwick citizens, have is the infrastructure of our current school buildings. The money purposed for the schools isn’t nearly enough to complete all the necessary repairs to the buildings. We have a half a million-dollar budget for maintenance in the buildings yearly. In writing it seems like a good amount of money but divided up between roughly 20 buildings, that leaves the minimum to repair necessary infrastructure in our schools. We are now in the predicament where we have to borrow a large sum of money to repair these buildings, which in turn leave us, the citizens of Warwick, to pay back a large amount of interest. We should have been investing our money accordingly all along, and action should have been taken 10-15 years ago instead of posing all of this on the community at once. It is overwhelming and rightfully causes the community to be resistant to consolidation and changes.
We really need to put the elementary consolidation vote off until January so the newest members of the School Committee can weigh in. I think the current members, with the exception of Karen Bachus, are trying to push it to happen before the election so they can get their agenda in.
The upcoming bond issue. This bond is absolutely critical for us to improve our educational system. Our newest school is 45 years old. Our schools do not fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 and amended on 2008! We should be ashamed of ourselves. Most if not all our schools still contain asbestos, many have heating systems, roofs, windows and doors that have long outlived their natural life cycles. Some are original to the buildings! We need completely revamped classrooms, more technology and electrical infrastructure in order to support a 21st century classroom and curriculum. Every school roof is a solar array waiting to happen and that can be done with a small upfront cost to the district. Cranston has already done this. We could explore wind power at the Tollgate complex. Plus, we have Building and Electrical Construction programs at our CTC that we might be able to tie in to these initiatives so our CTC students get real-world experience in tomorrow's jobs. We'd benefit financially with reduced energy costs, our students benefit, and the community as a whole benefits.