By ARDEN BASITA Following a tumulus meeting during which Judith Cobden was elected chair of the Warwick School Committee, an online petition has been mounted calling on both Cobden and the woman she succeeds, Karen Bachus, to resign. Concurrently, with
Following a tumulus meeting during which Judith Cobden was elected chair of the Warwick School Committee, an online petition has been mounted calling on both Cobden and the woman she succeeds, Karen Bachus, to resign.
Concurrently, with the change in leadership, questions are being raised over who is negotiating a contract with the Warwick Teachers Union and whether they had the authority to do so.
On Jan. 15, Warwick parents began circulating a petition online calling for the immediate resignation of Karen Bachus and Judith Cobden. “The school committee meeting on Jan. 12 was just another example of their inability to remain professional and focused on our issues at hand…The school children of Warwick, along with its teachers, principals, and administrators deserve more, demand more,” states the petition.
During the meeting on Jan. 12, things got personal between Bachus and Cobden, coming to a head in an explosive argument.
“I wish this was in private session, but it’s not,” said Bachus. “In these two years as vice chair, Miss Cobden has made derogatory remarks, made fun of me, and berated me because I take this as a full time job. I’m a fool for doing that, and she’s said that on more than one occasion. It was very hurtful, but it is what it is. I’m putting that out there so people know.”
Cobden then cited mismanagement, miscommunication, and poor leadership from Bachus and her unprofessional manner.
In a three to two vote, Judy Cobden was elected as chairperson,
Nathan Cornell was elected as vice chair in a three to two vote, and Kyle Adams was elected as clerk in a unanimous vote.
The petition calls for Bachus and Cobden to resign based on the grounds of unprofessionalism and loss of focus. “Karen and Judith have overstayed their welcome,” states the petition.
The petition also calls for a notice on Nathan Cornell. “We see him, we hear him, and we are not going to tolerate his behaviors, [and his] unprofessional conduct is complete disregard for committee etiquette.”
The petition is more than halfway to its goal of 500 signatures. As of publication, more than 375 parents, guardians, and Warwick residents have signed.
Kate McNamara, a Warwick parent and creator of the petition, said in a Facebook post she is aware “this petition is most likely not going to get them to step down, but it shows solidarity within our town and sends a clear and powerful message that we will not tolerate this nonsense any longer. Any action is better than no action.”
In an interview, McNamara mentioned that the petition also came from concerns that the health and wellness subcommittee was not consistent, therefore not providing Warwick students with the services they need. The subcommittee is responsible for overseeing physical education, nutrition education, and health education across all Warwick schools.
“We can’t blame this on anything else but a lack of accountability,” she said. “The committee hasn’t been updated since 2018.”
McNamara also said in her post there were “countless” others, including parents, who were interested in stepping into school committee positions. “[They] have shown thoughtfulness and they should be recognized and proud of themselves for not engaging in the argumentative name calling and fighting, but rather keeping the kids of this community in their full focus.”
The Warwick City Charter does not mention a mechanism for school committee members to be ousted by constituent petition.
“The petition started because of their comments and actions,” said Frank Mayor Picozzi. “It started because of their comments and actions. Although I find it distasteful and inappropriate, I don’t think it’s grounds for removal. I’m not going to focus on that.”
But the petition for resignation is only one concern for the school committee, as conflicting accounts of teacher negotiations raise questions.
In a conversation with Bachus on Friday, Jan. 8, she mentioned that she was working alongside the Warwick Teachers Union to negotiate the contract, but in an interview on Tuesday, she declined to discuss any further details and said she has “no idea” about the events. In the initial interview on Friday, Jan. 8, Bachus also explained that since she was voted out, Cobden would resume the contract negotiations.
Warwick teachers have been without a contract since last August, but Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, says she isn’t concerned, as both the school committee and administration are still operating under the expired agreement.
In an interview, Cobden said she was “unaware” of any negotiations happening involving the teachers’ contract and declined to elaborate on what the negotiations would entail, but did say that Bachus, during her time as chairperson, took meetings without other members of the committee. Superintendent Philip Thornton said he was aware of negotiations, but has not been able to be involved.
Netcoh had “no comment” on the negotiations, and did not discuss any details.
Cathy Bonang, secretary to the superintendent, did reveal that there was no action taken by the school committee to authorize Bachus or anyone else to be to negotiate on behalf of the committee.
Mayor Picozzi, who was formally chairman of the Warwick school committee, said the actions were “improper” as “the chair, or anyone else, has no right to be negotiating without authorization from the school committee. There’s no evidence of a vote. It’s something to look into.”
In an interview, Mayor Picozzi said he never negotiated contracts while he was chair of the committee, as the Superintendent and his designee were in charge of such matters. “The school committee isn’t well versed enough to negotiate the contract. And when we went to mediation, the entire school committee did it…The school committee chairman has no authority on their own, no more than the other four members. All they do is accept the agenda and preside at the meetings,” he said.
The status of the contract negotiations currently remains unknown.