WOONSOCKET — If members of the School Committee wanted to rile up city residents about the worth of local education with a threat to end the current school year on April 5, they achieved that many times over Wednesday night.
More than 800 people filled the Hamlet Middle School cafeteria and a spill over room in the school gym to object strongly to that plan.
And when the matter came to a vote two-and-half-hours later, the plan was dropped like the bad egg the speakers had made it out to be.
All five members of the School Committee voted to keep schools open and reject the proposal even though its author, School Committeeman Christopher Roberts, Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier maintained something must still be done to cover the School Department's lack of available cash to meet pending bills and payroll.
And while he had also lost a bid to have school closing plan tabled to another meeting when none of his peers chose to second the move, Roberts said later he believed he had made the point that an active group of concerned city residents must still carry the fight for more state aid into the halls of the State House.
“I think that the state now understands our dire situation,” he said after the vote. “It is important for Woonsocket to come together and I hope everyone understands that the fight is not here, it is the State House where we have to be heard about the needs of our young people,” he said.
Although he had joined his peers in the high pressure decision to reject an early school closing, Roberts said he did so because his belief that “everyone has gotten the message.”
Early on in the meeting it had not appeared so clear cut to the mix of local teachers, support staff members, students and parents who took the microphone to explain how the committee's current efforts to cut the budget were enacting even greater pain on a district they argued has already been too deeply.
Some of the parents stepping up to the podium told of how their children had found success in school only because of their teachers and paraprofessionals and demanded that committee take another track in solving its budget problem. A number also threatened a class action suit against city officials if such a plan end school before the required 180 days under state and federals laws were to be put into place.
The size of the crowd, the largest to show up before the School Committee in decades if not ever, drew a group of more than a half dozen police officers for security but created no disturbances beyond loud statements and thunderous applause at times.
Facilities Director Peter Fontaine said 300 chairs for the overflow crowd had been set up in front of large television screen in the school gym and another 100 had to be added to give everyone a seat.
The large outpouring drew three members of the City Council, Chairman John F. Ward, and members Robert Moreau and Daniel Gendron, and state Rep. Robert Phillips, who sat in the gym, to listen but not Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
Woonsocket Teachers Guild President Jeffrey Partington noted the number of budget option on the agenda before the committee when he took the microphone and voiced support for measures to restore all-day kindergarten in the city, and state legislation that would change the notification rule for teacher layoffs and preserves call back by seniority.
On the two largest measures before the panel, the early closing and a committee bid to reopen the teachers' contract, Partington said he understood that the schools “have a fiscal problem, and you have a duty to fix that problem in any manner that you can.”
He also maintained that the city and state have turned their backs on schools in the past and that the “committee may feel this is what you have to do.”
“But I fail to understand how your only answer, once again, is to fix this deficit on the backs of those that did not cause this problem in the first place. You plan to close the schools? That violates state law. More to the point, this won't fill your deficit,” he said.
“The only think this will accomplish is putting more students at an even greater disadvantage to other students in Rhode Island and putting teachers on the unemployment line,” he said.
Partington maintained the budget deficit “is a revenue problem, not a cost problem,” while arguing the only solution was more state revenue “because we know that the Woonsocket taxpayers are also close to exhaustion.”
“I am tired, we are tired of being the well of solutions for this committee, for this city,” Partington said the applause of the hundreds of city teachers and parents in the room.
“We cannot-- we will not, be that easy answer for the this committee,” he said.
The School Committee should tell the City Council that there is no answer but bankruptcy or tell the state of Rhode Island “that they must step up and write the check,” he said.
On the issue of reopening the teacher contract, Partington said that since the entire teaching staff has been laid off, and the system cannot run with more layoffs than the 53 teachers originally given notices, the committee should rehire the rest of the teaching staff affected “and then we will talk.”
Tom Lambert, the president of Local 1137, the support staff union, pointed to all the cuts and benefit changes his members have already endured while asking the committee to rethink staff reduction plan. The school department's union members have already gone four years without a pay raise and will not receive one next year as well, he noted. A majority of those employees live in the city and pay city taxes, too, he said.
“I ask all of you what all of my members ask, when is enough going to be enough,” Lambert said. The union official said his members would be willing to listen to the Committee's proposals for further savings but added “there are no guarantees.”
Shane Culliton took his two young children up to the podium while voicing support for the Fairmount schools and local education.
“There is no more room to cut services in Woonsocket,” Culliton said. He also argued that the only way to expand the city's tax base is to attract new businesses and development to the city and to do that the city needs “good schools.”
Cedrik Samson, a former student now attending URI told the panel how his math teacher, Suzanne Walker, had help him achieve success in high school and also prepared him to be successful in his college engineering program.
Teachers who also live in the city and had their children attend local schools stood up to call for a reconsideration of the closing plan and some in the audience questioned the panel's political motives and whether they were looking to move onto the City Council.
“I would hate to see what you would do to our children if you had more power,” one speaker told the committee.
A noted teacher at the Career and Technical Center, Charles Myers, said local teachers like himself have continued to do the job their students require even though they have received a pay raise in four years. His own students have given back by building many projects needed by the city, from gazebos in the parks to reconstruction of the stands at Barry Field. But the state, Myers said “has to realize that this community needs more money because these kids have needs.”
Teachers like Marybeth Lesperance and paraprofessional Lesile Talamini, told how they
live in the city and return their pay in taxes to the community. Talamini, a paraprofessional vice president for the guild, said she is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet with so many years without a pay increase. “I can't afford it, enough is enough,” she said.
Alex Kithes, another former student, gave a memorable speech in support of local education and when notified by School Superintendent Giovana Donoyan he was running out of time, made a visible effort to speak faster.
“Desperate times do call for desperate measures, but in any or all of these courses of action, you are stripping from 6,000 students their fundamental right to an education,” Kithes said.
As the panel debated the option of closing school, Donoyan joined the opponents in saying she too could not agree with such a plan and would be forced to go against the committee in not implementing it as a violation of state and federal law if it were approved.
That did not happen when Committee members John Donlon, Vimala Phongsavanh and Eleanor Nadeau made strong statements of opposition to such a move.
School Committeewoman Anita McGuire-Forcier said she had only considered it as an option when fearing that schools would be left without teachers when the money ran out and no one would be present to supervise students.
“It was just to put it up for discussion,” she said after the committee's unanimous vote to reject the closing. “We just wanted people to know we are running out of money.”