Building Committee Comments

*** This article is related to the conversation that took place during the first 40 minutes of the 8/25 Building Committee Meeting. Video of the meeting can be viewed at the town clerkbase site by browsing for other boards and commissions > School Building Committee***

The relationship between district administration/leadership and the community they serve has been on my mind for some time. Over the past two years, community involvement in district decision making has been non-existent. Recently, it’s become clear that the current administration/leadership doesn’t even know what real community engagement is. Discussions regarding communication of district facility plans are all one way, being pushed out. There is no real attempt to foster and utilize community input.

Examples of communication failures are numerous. In 2019, the school committee voted to suspend its own bylaws to pass a major amendment to the personnel assignment process long sought by NEASK leadership without a second reading. This action robbed the community of the ability to weigh in before such a critical decision. There was no justification given and member Cummiskey even admitted that it “looked bad” before voting in the affirmative.

More recently, the district unveiled school reopening plans developed without community involvement. Since then, instead of focusing on substantial parental confusion and legitimate concerns, the district instead is patting themselves on the back because Commissioner Infante Green gave SK a 10 second shout out at this week’s state update. With all due respect, I don’t care what Commissioner Infante Green or Governor Raimondo thinks of our plan. I care what the SK parent of a student with ADHD thinks about how thier child will manage 2 1/2 hour long classes. I care about what the SK parent of an at risk child thinks about the prospect of full day virtual learning which looks nothing like last spring. I care that people with unique perspectives were not invited to help craft a plan.

Which brings us to the topic of my comments last night. 2 weeks ago, RGB unveiled facility improvement plans for the elementary schools and I noticed something odd. While the plans for 3 of the schools were geared toward serving all students K-5, the plans for Wakefield School focused exclusively on younger learners. It occurred to me this could be a sign that the district may be moving toward a proposal made last year by interim superintendent Hicks, so I asked this question (RGB answer in red):

Last night’s discussion focused on this question. For those unaware, Hicks’ proposal involved merging the PD and WES school population into one cohort and serving Pk – 1st grade at WES and 2-5 at PDES. The idea has some merit and some downsides, controversial enough for the SC to punt on the proposal to a future year. Or so we thought.

Given RGB’s history of only doing what the school committee explicitly directs them to do, it was inconceivable that they could have answered yes to that question without being directed to do so. At last night’s meeting, administrators, school committee members and the town manager all attempted to downplay the significance, suggesting that maybe RGB didn’t understand what I was asking. Maybe they are right, but the episode highlights the larger problem of district/community interaction.

The idea that something like this could happen, where plans were being developed to align with an educational vision not voted on by the school committee, would have been unthinkable prior to November 2018. Since receiving this email response I have broached the topic with both critics and supporters of the school committee and no one has responded with shock. It has become completely natural to think that this district, under current leadership, could be capable of using the facility process to force a policy change this substantial.

I very much hope that the next committee instills a commitment to real community engagement and involvement that unites the district and community in trust and shared vision. I lost my temper last night because this has been such a frustrating 2 years watching the evolution of a district that used to be open to new thoughts and ideas to one that communicates only “take it or leave it” plans at the last minute. I hope that district leaders understand that my frustration is representative of what is being felt by people across the district.

I know that the administrators and school committee members are working very hard. Unfortunately, hard work is not sufficient when that work is not being guided by the hopes and concerns of the community it serves. That can only happen when real, robust community engagement returns. It is too late for that to happen prior to the September application deadline for stage 2. Perhaps the new school committee can make this a priority during stage 3, and guide us toward a future we all have a stake and say in going forward.

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