Warwick, RI — Back in 2015, the Warwick School Committee made an impressive demonstration, putting a Chromebook in each councilor’s hands and walking them through the use of Google Docs to show how this new technology could be used in local classrooms — if the council and Mayor Scott Avedisian would only agree to put some $3 million in the school budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
The council ultimately passed a budget without a significant increase to the schools — and their reasoning was sound, because in truth, Warwick’s enrollment has been declining and so hasn’t needed major increases in funding to keep up with its population.
Fast-forward two years and it’s clear that the school department, despite the flashy show of technology, was in horrendous shape.
Even after the retirements and departures of three top administrators since then — Supt. Richard D’Agostino, Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen, and compliance officer and director of human resources Rosemary Healey — the institutional rot they left in their wake remains an issue.
All three former administrators departed from the district after their refusal to discipline former teacher Mario Atoyan was publicized in the so-called Ragosta Report and following the arrest of the school department’s facilities director for using school funds over the course of four years to make repairs and buy new appliances for his home.
Aging fire alarms, expired extinguishers, and sewage leaks into classrooms have all been brought to the public’s attention in recent weeks, and it’s becoming clear that all of these issues could have been addressed with even the barest of leadership from the former management group.
And while parents are right to call for Supt. Philip Thornton’s resignation after he admitted to not properly notifying them about the breakdown of fire alarm systems at two schools — after, it should be noted, he had no such hesitation to tell parents about a suspected teacher sick-out last November — the fact is that the problems with Warwick’s school facilities started well before he was hired.
When it’s clear that administrators are not upholding even the most basic of their duties — keeping kids safe and being responsible with the public’s money — the burden then falls on the elected officials overseeing them, in this case the Warwick School Committee, to hold them accountable.
In the wake of D’Agostino, Mullen, and Healey’s collective flight from further public scrutiny, though, it’s been clear that the school board’s record of foot-dragging over consolidation, the stonewalling of public records requests for the publicly-discussed investigation into Atoyan, and the decision to go to arbitration over the teacher contract essentially allowed the former administrators’ near-scandalous failure to uphold their stewardship of the city’s school buildings.
Following the 2016 election, there is only one new member of the school committee, David Testa, meaning the majority of the current school committee were on the board during the meltdown of the former administrative regime. All hasn’t been uniformly bad with the board; Karen Bachus has been a lone voice of reason on several occasions, only for her sensible opinions to get voted down.
In the midst of these failures — and the potential for more problems to come to light — Avedisian should spearhead two forceful initiatives to repair some of the damage that has put the school district in such woeful shape:
Solution #1: Appoint the school committee
It is time to follow Providence and Woonsocket in appointing the school committee, as Councilman Ed Ladouceur proposed back in 2015.
Those cities changed the composition of their school boards in the midst of severe fiscal crises; Warwick is not in that situation right now — and it’s partly because city officials have not simply rolled over and produced millions of dollars every year for a dwindling school population every time they’re threatened with legal action.
In addition, based on the recent school department controversies, the main justification for appointing the school committee is one of accountability.
Right now, the school board acts like it’s still running its own kingdom, untouchable by even the barest scrutiny by the city or its residents. See how, for example, committee vice chairman Eugene Nadeau said he was not concerned about the lack of notice to the community about the broken fire alarms.
This is a discouraging stance by a member of the board that heard Thornton’s public admission that he should have notified parents earlier; providing political cover to admitted failures by school administrators is not the mark of a truly accountable public official.
It’s also not a recognition that all of the school board’s decisions affect the city as a whole — it’s the city that’s paying those bills to replace old fire extinguishers; it’s the city that will foot the bill for bringing fire alarms current; and it’s the city that has to justify the annual budget, including school spending, to taxpayers.
By moving to the appointment model, it will still be the city that is responsible for all of these actions — but it will have the authority to directly and proactively address them, instead of butting heads with a recalcitrant school board before getting to fix these issues.
Consider how much quicker consolidation would have been completed, without the 11th-hour spectacle of commissioning yet another study that not only justified consolidation but recommended closing more schools to bring the district into some sort of realistic teacher-student ratio. Instead of continued labor strife with the teachers union, having the city in charge of selecting the school board would lead to unions negotiating directly with the city and having contracts in place instead of continual legal wrangling.
Maybe then, with more accountable and responsible leadership answering directly to municipal officials, Warwick schools could end this cycle of controversy and discord, and reverse the trend of one mess following another.
It’s worth trying, if for no other reason than the current way of doing business isn’t working.
Solution #2: Go after the pensions paid to former administrators
Collectively, D’Agostino, Mullen, and Healey had more than 70 years of tenure in the Warwick school system, potentially qualifying them for generous publicly-funded pensions.
D’Agostino worked first as a teacher, then principal of Oakland Beach School, and then special education director before his appointment to superintendent in 2012, adding up to 33 years. Mullen was hired in 1990 to teach at Gorton, then worked as principal of Pilgrim before his promotion to secondary education director and appointments to head of IT and athletic director. Healey worked as the district’s compliance officer and director of human resources since 2002.
Because it’s clear that these three top administrators so egregiously failed in their roles — they were letting firefighting devices age to the point of being condemned [with the funding readily available, no less] while their facilities manager made off with more than $70,000 worth of school money and equipment — the city under Avedisian’s leadership should pursue legal action against them.
Warwick has an honorable service requirement for retirees in the city’s code of ordinances, possibly giving the mayor and city officials the opportunity to go after their pensions.
And since these three left the district as former administrators [as opposed to union teachers], there may be fewer hurdles to clear in bringing such a case to the appropriate pension board and, ultimately, the courts.
Granted, the legal precedent for these cases is thin, but even if the city only succeeded in disqualifying D’Agostino, Mullen, and Healey for the last four years of their contributions — the length of David LaPlante’s systematic theft from the school department under their watch that led to his felony conviction — that would still represent a financial penalty, one that would at least symbolically hold these three accountable and put a crimp in what they presumably believed would be comfortable departures.
Combined with seeking an appointed school committee, the pursuit of financial penalties against the former administrators would be a legitimate, if overdue, reproach of the decades-old sense that a community’s usefulness is limited to its ability to fund education without scrutinizing the way it’s delivered.
So much has changed in Warwick in just the last two years that Avedisian would be right to cite these developments as reason to end that outdated view of city and school operations — and continue his recent pledge to stay active as an advisor in teacher contract negotiations within legal parameters that are in place currently.
Avedisian has the political clout, the executive experience, and the consensus that something must be done — now, before too many more examples come to light of mismanagement that leaves children in unnecessary danger — to fix the institutional issues plaguing the school district.
Given this prime opportunity to fundamentally change how Warwick schools are run, Avedisian should lead the efforts to ensure that it actually happens and start rebuilding the trust that residents have lost in their local government.