School committee candidates gathered at the Pilgrim Political Involvement Club on Tuesday afternoon for their final public forum prior to Tuesday’s election, reiterating points during last week’s Beacon forum but also bringing in some new points of view.
Notable was the appearance of District 3 candidate Corey Smith, who was unable to attend last week’s forum due to his commitment to teaching a night accounting class at Johnson & Wales University. However, due to her commitments to her job, District 2 incumbent Terri Medeiros could not attend Tuesday’s forum at Pilgrim.
While many areas of the conversation touched upon similar themes and generated similar answers from last week, some new ground was touched upon. All five candidates were staunchly against charter schools opening up in the city, for example.
However, a common theme that has resonated throughout the election period has been the atmosphere of discontent surrounding members of the public and certain staff and teachers working within the schools, specifically in regards to how the central administration has interacted with the public and the city council.
Every candidate inferred that communication could be improved in the district between administrators, the school committee and the public, though there were varying degrees of that thought among the different candidates.
“There needs to be open communication with everyone involved,” said Kyle Adams, running for District 1. “All stakeholders need to be accounted for, so that way if we bring all that to Warwick we can bring transparency and accountability back.”
“We need to listen. It’s very easy,” said Judy Cobden, running against Medeiros in District 2. “Most of [what needs to be fixed] is about listening to people.”
Adams’ opponent for District 1, Rick Cascella, measured the criticism against the administration by offering that the district has had to go through a complicated consolidation process that has involved a lot of moving parts and a lot of highly emotional, difficult decisions. He said that now that the consolidation is over, cooler heads should prevail and there should be fewer issues.
“Now that we’ve been brought down to a size we can manage better and that is more efficient, I think we’ll start to see – at least under my watch – a push for the administration to be more out there and more willing to meet at different times and with different programs to talk to the teachers and the parents about how things are going and be so much more transparent about how they deal with the everyday activities,” Cascella said. “I think you’ll see a more collaborative experience.”
Nathan Cornell, running for District 3, also mentioned how school committee members needed to be more visible in the community, and how there should be more participation on the Community Outreach Educational Committee, which he co-chairs and involves members of the city council and stakeholders to the schools, including one school committee member at this time. He said that residents should have an avenue to voice their concerns prior to votes through that committee, and also said that people should get more than two minutes to speak at public comment time during meetings.
“People would feel like they’re part of the decision making process,” he said.
Corey Smith, also running in District 3, emphasized that the focus should be on moving forward to a better tomorrow rather than dwelling on the problems of the past.
“We need to leave the past behind us, and that’s where it stays,” he said. “From this point forward, we just start to work collaboratively to problem solve and troubleshoot and figure out how to come up with short term, intermediate and long-term solutions to the problems.”
When asked about the issued caused by finances within the city, members spoke about the distrust that is evident among certain members of the city council in regards to the operations of the school committee and school department. Some members felt this mistrust was warranted.
“Personally I don’t believe they’ve been allocating [funds] properly because there wouldn’t be this much distrust between all parties if it was,” said Adams, who reiterated his efforts to meet with city council members and state representatives to start building trust early and often. “Building trust is not an easy thing but I think it’s already off on the right foot.”
Others felt as though the distrust was more directionally one-sided than others.
“I don’t think that the school department or school committee distrusts the council, but I think there’s a level of distrust from the council to the school department because of the vagaries in the way the money gets spent, and I understand that,” said Cascella. “But I think once we get passed the distrust we’ll be able to get things worked out and we’ll all do much better.”
Most candidates felt the need to bring the two sides closer together.
“There needs to be respect amongst everyone – all levels of government,” said Cobden. “Right now, I feel like the school committee is an island and the city council is an island. We need to have a bridge between those islands. I think it can be done but I think there has to be trust involved in this. Blaming needs to stop but trust also needs to be built.”
While 90-second question and answer formats don’t necessarily allow candidates to get down to the nuts and bolts of how they would solve problems, candidates were clear about how they will take an active approach in problem solving instead of adding to the long list of complaints heard throughout the district in past years.
“It’s one thing to complain and it’s another thing to actually do something about it,” said Smith. As a CPA, Smith said he deals with helping optimize budgets for a majority of his clients, and that he understands the budgetary woes faced by the district are more complex than some would like to admit.
“If figuring out things like this were easy, people like me wouldn’t have a job,” he said. We get paid because it’s difficult – it’s a challenge. I think we’ve all been asked so many questions about what would you do with the budget, as if there’s a magic answer to it, and there’s just not.”
Please look for the Beacon’s school committee forum on PEG RI-TV, which Cox customers can view on Channel 17 and Verizon customers can view on Channel 37. Air dates at this time include: Friday, 11/02 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, 11/03 at 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 11/04 at 1 p.m. When available, the video will be posted on the Beacon website as well.