COVENTRY, RI — All public speakers at Thursday’s School Committee meeting protested Superintendent Don Cowarts’ Coventry schools restructure around a Black Rock early learning center to bridge a $1.5 million deficit.
“We’re have a perfect storm of things happening at the moment,” said Coventry School Committee Chairman James Pierson, including the deficit, a drop in state school aid as the state reverts to funding based on declining numbers of students, and the end of COVID-19 stimulus funding. The last two developments will exacerbate the $1.5 million deficit, he said.
Pierson said the plan is intended to help make up the deficit, and the presentation and vote were timed to give Cowart time to make the changes within the FY25 budget, which begins July 1, with the changes taking effect this fall.
The plan would repurpose Blackrock School as an early learning center, and create two sister-school pairs: Washington Oak (K-3) / Western Coventry (4-5) and Tiogue (K-12) /Hopkins Hill (3-5). The middle school and high school would not be changed.
Speakers in the 300-strong crowd criticized the plan for its surprise announcement to the community this week and a rush to vote on it Jan. 16, five days after introducing the idea.
Critics also cried foul on a lack of data presented with the plan. Pierson said the financial impact, particularly how much money the approach would save, needed to be laid out before he would support moving the plan to a vote Jan. 16.
“I don’t think I’d be able to put a vote forward without more clarity on the financial impact,” Pierson said during a recess in the meeting, following three and a half hours of protesting speakers that required the Committee to vote to extend the meeting past three hours.
“We actually have done the research,” Cowart protested part way through a long line of parents, teachers, and students asking questions about the plan, criticizing the parts they understood and repeatedly shaming them for allowing the presentation to proceed with no data to back it up, and for scheduling a vote next week. Many of the speakers, more than 50, with their ranks replenished by new commenters every 15 minutes, called the timing rushed, and the sudden introduction of the plan “sneaky”.
Christine Stowell, whose daughter, Lena, 8, attends Blackrock, told the School Committee her feelings about the presentation, its announcement and scheduled vote could not be expressed politely. She also demanded Cowart and the School Committee provide information on how the plan will affect principals, teachers and bus scheduling. Also, she said, they should have come to the meeting with all of that, and the data backing up the plan.
“You have an ethical obligation to provide that as elected officials,” Stowell said.
Coventry Teachers Alliance (CTA) president Kelly Erinakes echoed those criticisms, adding that teachers should have been consulted about the plan.
“They were very disrespected that their voice was never asked for any of this whatsoever,” Erinakes said.
Two members of the School Committee expressed doubt about the plan immediately after Cowart’s presentation.
“I am conflicted with this plan,” said Pierson. However, he said, he also wanted to consider the benefits Cowart said the plan holds for the school system, including efficiencies in learning and distribution of technology, socialization, and allow a social worker and reading specialist for every elementary school.
“I too feel conflicted,” said Ana Isabel dos Reis-Couto. However, she said, “We have to think long-term.”
No member of the School Committee addressed the reason for the plan or the timing in presenting it and voting for it within a week during the meeting. Cowart, when asked that question directly prior to the meeting, declined to answer, saying he would do so during his presentation. But speakers repeatedly noted he didn’t address that point.
In the crowd, parents, teachers and students of Blackrock School bore signs urging Committee members to keep Blackrock as an elementary school, reading “Save the Bees! Blackrock isn’t Just a school, we’re a family. Don’t break us up!
Heather Budziak, a parent of a Blackrock student, opposed breaking up the Blackrock School community.
“We’re a family. Our leaders know our students and what our students need,” she said. She also expressed bewilderment about the plan’s impact on Blackrock. “We were not informed that our school was in trouble,” she said.
Meaghan McMahon, said Blackrock School has been a godsend for her son, Chris, 9, who struggled with school and began attending with behavioral needs. “They did such a good job with him,” she said, “He loves school now.”
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