The elementary consolidation process showed no signs of slowing despite pleas to put the brakes on the plan to close Randall Holden and Wickes Schools and re-purpose John Brown Francis School as the district’s early childhood center.
A vote is set for October 25. If approved, the schools would close in June.
The Department of Education requires three public hearings before closing a school. At the first of the hearings last Thursday, School Committee Chair Beth Furtado and Vice Chair Eugene Nadeau defended consolidation committee findings, detailing the extensive study and saying the committee has spent a year and a half on the process.
“The bottom line is that we cannot afford to maintain the buildings for the students for education. That’s it. It’s not we’re going to pick this one, and this one, and that one and throw it up in the air. That’s not it,” she said. “This hasn’t been a 15-minute conversation.”
Furtado was interrupted numerous times. When Nadeau took the microphone a few audience members loudly demanded he resign.
“I’ve listened to all the remarks here tonight. You know we have to close the schools. You know consolidation had to take place. We tried to do it the right way, the common sense way, and with respect,” Nadeau said. “All I’ve heard is negative comments repeated month after month after month. As Beth said, to do this successfully for the benefit of our students, it has to be done together.”
There were repeated requests for the committee to “slow down.” School Committee member Karen Bachus called it “idiocy” to move forward after a “botched” secondary consolidation. Warwick Vets teacher Mike Pierce said there was still mold and asbestos in classrooms and Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh agreed many classrooms had not been properly equipped to serve students. City Council President Donna Travis proposed delaying consolidation talks until after the November election.
Bachus also asked how many on the committee are Warwick residents – four of the 13 present members raised their hands, prompting jeers from the crowd and a loud proclamation from Bachus that none of them “had business” serving on the committee.
“Have you ever noticed that the population of students is going down at the same rate the quality of Warwick education is going down? Maybe that should be the concern,” School Committee candidate Dean Johnson chimed in.
A presentation from the consolidation committee outlined the consolidation process since 2008, which began with the Potowomut and Christopher Rhodes closures. John Greene School was closed and Drum Rock re-purposed a year later. Short and long-range planning committees were assembled from 2010-2013, and SMMA was hired for consulting a year after. The firm recommended the closure of 4 to 6 elementary schools, which is now being discussed after the consolidation of secondary schools. The presentation cited population declines as a reason for consolidation; Since 2006, elementary population has decreased by 859 students and the schools are currently 26.5 percent under capacity. It’s expected to drop by another 1,090 students by 2024.
Wickes is recommended for closure due to difficulties with Main Avenue reconfiguration, the building’s proximity to the Green Airport runway extension (it is 1,600 feet, approximately five football fields, away from the runway), and the $9.8 million needed to for renovations. Holden was recommended due to its small size, closeness to other elementary districts, and the $5.5 million cost of renovations.
Wickes students would be sent to Greenwood, Park, Robertson, and Scott schools, and Holden students would be off to E.T. Wyman and Holliman schools.
Drum Rock and John Brown Francis were recommended for re-purposing. Drum Rock scored 1/5 on the BrightStars Tiered Quality and Improvement System, so its conditions are not appropriate to serve its young children, the presentation said. The facility would become part of the Career and Technical Center on the Toll Gate campus. John Brown Francis has the proper resources for children like restrooms, large hallways, and square footage that meets state and federal recommendations.
John Brown Francis teacher Elena Habershaw was not in favor of the re-purposing.
“Your presentation spoke on and on about why John Brown Francis will be a wonderful school for the students at Drum Rock, but you didn’t say any reason why it’s not a wonderful school for the students that are already there,” she said. “Our school is a loving and wonderful community, and you want to take it away from them just because it will be a wonderful place for someone else, and I think that is a horrible decision.”
While numerous comments in defense of all four schools were made, Randall Holden’s representation came out in particularly vocal force. The school’s PTO along with a few young students was present, highly visible decked out in bright blue Holden t-shirts and brandishing “S.O.S. - Save Our Schools” picket signs. Many of them spoke during public comment, including the students, who read prepared statements.
Many parents pointed out perceived hypocrisy in the decision to put Holden on the chopping block and referred to the size of Cedar Hill. Holden, suggested for closure on the basis of small size, is at 54 percent capacity with 209 students. Cedar Hill is at 64 percent capacity with 316 students. Why, the Holden representatives asked, was Cedar Hill not an option?
Nadeau responded Friday that Cedar Hill was not recommended for closure as it services a large portion of students in the Potowomut area.
The next meeting is set for October 13th at Pilgrim, and the last for October 17th at Toll Gate. Both begin at 6:30 p.m.