WARWICK, RI — Corey Smith, parent of a child at Cedar Hill School, took the public lead in communicating the dismay of fellow parents about the School Department’s failure to update them on an investigation of Principal Colleen Mecurio’s handling of abuse reports.
Now, he’s campaigning for the Dist. 3 seat on the Warwick School Committee to bring transparency to the Warwick School District’s governance and bring the community into the decision-making process.
WarwickPost.com asked Smith a series of questions including a few new ones and a number asked of each School Committee candidate. Here are Smith’s answers:
1) Your Facebook page says you want the Warwick school system to return to the desirable district it once was. Can you describe what you mean by that and what you intend to do to bring it about?
When my wife (Kelly) and I were looking to buy a house we targeted Warwick and specifically Potowamut – in large part because of the great reputation the schools had. That reputation no longer exists; in fact it seems to be somewhat the opposite now – it is well known that the school committee, teachers, and City Council do not work together and that there is open hostility among these groups.
This upcoming election affords the city the opportunity to re-set expectations and re-establish working relationships. There will potentially be three new members of the committee which could change the entire outlook for the future.
2) Other than that, why are you interested in serving on the School Committee? What do you hope to accomplish there? What would you like to change?
I’m running out of a sense of civic duty. I, like many others, have stood up at public comment and complained to the SC about various topics. Complaining and publicly voicing discontent serves a valuable purpose: it raises awareness. It now becomes necessary for all of us to shift our focus to moving forward and that change in mindset is one of the first things I’d like to implore everyone to do; I’ll try to lead by example. In addition, the budget needs to be thoroughly reviewed to see where we can cut spending without decimating one department/discipline, like we currently see with the custodian staff. I’d like to bring more transparency to the decision making process and I’d like for the SC to openly ask for feedback and input – in appropriate situations – from teachers/parents/citizens prior to making decisions.
3) The School Department cut $750,000 from its budget to make up for about $6 million it didn’t receive from the City Council this year – what do you think of this cost saving measure? Was there another non-contractual expense you could have cut instead?
I, along with everyone I’ve spoken with, do not think this was a prudent decision. It appears that the SC looked at singular line items on the budget and tried to cut groups of spending as opposed to digging into the underlying schedules. Instead of eliminating a significant amount of the custodial workforce, why not try eliminating one position per department among all departments? This way, although unpleasant, the work of only one/two positions within a group would need to be absorbed.
4) City Councilors attend School Committee meetings. Why has that not resulted in better communication between the two bodies? Why didn’t the boards meet about the budget ahead of time this year?
Simply attending meetings will not result in anything positive unless there is follow through afterwards. The meetings are more informational where proposals are presented and voted on. No meaningful dialogue occurs, as the forum for discussion is intended to be in the days leading up to the meeting. Public comment is a one-sided mechanism of communication. So, if the two groups are going to work together, conversations need to be had outside of the meetings.
Why the boards did not meet and work together on the budget is a question only they can answer. I will say that no budgeting process can be expected to succeed without input from all parties of influence.
5) The School Committee asked the City Council for $8 million, which would’ve required raising taxes beyond the legal maximum. Then the school department purchased a full-page ad in the Warwick Beacon threatening to sue the city if the Council didn’t agree to it. How would you explain these actions?
Honestly, I’m not in a position to explain these actions since I don’t understand what the SC hoped for in doing this. I think this was a mistake and it showed a lack of respect for how the budgeting process is supposed to work. This did not exemplify leadership; it only strained the relationship with the City Council even more and displayed a self-centered attitude on the part of the SC. In general, threats are counterproductive to collaboration and teamwork. I feel as though this was an embarrassing attempt at a publicity stunt to convince citizens of Warwick that the current budget crisis is someone else’s fault.
6) Has the district been getting a good value out of its hiring of Martin & Associates to handle public relations and its web presence?
I do not think any city or town should pay for public relations. Actions speak louder than words and we should be focused on working together and fixing problems – not creating a smokescreen to make things appear fine.
7) The School Committee begins meetings by immediately entering executive session, leaving the public to wait for the regular meeting. Is this the best use of the public’s time and interest in the work of the Committee?
From a parent’s perspective, I find this incredibly rude and inconsiderate. The unspoken message is that our time is less important than theirs and that we are not entitled to information. This committee is meant to represent us and as such they should feel a sense of responsibility to provide us as much information as possible. In my opinion, there are very few items, such as sensitive personnel issues, that need to be discussed privately in executive session. Executive session should be held before/after the scheduled meeting; all meeting should begin on time, unless extenuating circumstances prohibit this.
8) Parents were dissatisfied with the School Department and School Committee’s failure to inform them of broken fire alarms in elementary schools and serious allegations of discrimination against a student at Cedar Hill Elementary School. How would you improve this?
Most all of what we as parents want can be significantly improved with open and transparent communication. There is a feeling held by many parents that the SC and administration would rather hide mistakes made than simply own up to them and make adjustments so that they don’t happen again.
My frustration regarding the Cedar Hill issue was the lack of action taken once the facts became clear and the blatant disregard for a 70-count parent group that was imploring the committee and the administration to listen and take action. As parents, we put our children’s safety above even our own life – at the very least we need to know if there are situations or events that put our children at risk and the School Department is responsible for swift communication once it becomes aware.