EAST PROVIDENCE — Public comments were both caustic and constructive during a discussion of the proposed closing of the James Oldham Elementary School at the first East Providence School Committee meeting of the new year held Thursday night, Jan. 10, in the City Hall Chamber.
The microphones on the dais weren’t working due to technical difficulties, but the one at the podium where residents voiced their concerns was on and their words were amplified loud and clear: Don’t close our school.
Interim School Superintendent Dr. John DeGoes bore the brunt of criticisms aimed at his plan to shutter Oldham, which mostly educates students in the Bullocks Point Avenue area of Riverside.
Dr. DeGoes began his presentation by going through a timeline of events. He took over the superintendent position in early August of last year and found out there was a budgetary need to close a school about a month later.
Of the $15 million in bond money to repair all of the city’s schools, about $7 million remained. Oldham alone, according to figures gathered by Dr. DeGoes, needs in excess of $2 million in updates, including safety and fire, asbestos abatement, windows and doors and a new roof.
In October at a meeting he had with representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Education, Dr. DeGoes said he was given strong indication the state would not look favorably on spending that kind of money on an older building like Oldham and one with the smallest enrollment of any school in the city.
Dr. DeGoes then told the crowd about convening a study committee among East Providence school principals and administrators. After looking at a number of options, the only realistic move would be to close Oldham.
By doing so, all current Oldham students would be moved to nearby Waddington for the start of the 2013-14 term. In addition, all incoming Kindergarten students from Riverside, including those originally targeted to attend Waddington, would be sent to Meadowcrest. The superintendent noted Waddington could handle the influx of new students, claiming it has the capability of housing up to 600 pupils.
Dr. DeGoes concluded his presentation by saying, “If we have to close a school, closing Oldham is the only move. Any other move becomes cost prohibitive. Keeping Oldham open would cost upwards of $2.5 million, and I don’t know where you could find $2.5 million.”
Ward 4 Committee member Tim Conley, whose district includes Oldham, was first to comment, voicing his strong opposition to the proposal. Mr. Conley said he was “outraged” and also insinuated Oldham’s enrollment figures have been kept artificially low through the years. He, like many others would later, claimed Oldham was the “best” performing school in the city and said it sent out the wrong message.
Mr. Conley ended by saying closing Oldham would “set back education in the city and I will not be a part of that.”
Others who went to the podium wondered aloud just how cost effective it would be to shut Oldham or how it would affect the students, their families and the neighborhood in general. Some asked why so-called lesser performing schools like Hennessey or Whiteknact in the center of the city couldn’t be closed. Others pointed the finger at the Budget Commission, claiming it was out of the purview of the state overseers to make such a move.
To his credit, Dr. DeGoes calmly accepted most of the comments, though his ire was raised when some claimed his proposal would do harm to the education of the youngsters in the area.
“We have a great school system. To say one school is better than the other gives the wrong impression,” Dr. DeGoes said.
Near the end of the discussion Ward 2 Committee member Tony Ferreira offered up likely the most telling statement of the night. Mr. Ferreira noted the decision to close Oldham is likely a fete accompli, that the Budget Commission, which has had it as a consideration for several months, has already made up its mind.
The School Committee, the Commission or some combination of the two will undoubtedly have a public hearing to discuss the matter further. Mr. Ferreira urged concerned residents to remain involved in the process. He also said he expects those charged with answering their questions to do so when asked.
Among the other items of note, the School Committee approved all personnel recommendations offered up Thursday, including appointments, resignations and leaves of absences.
Dr. DeGoes also recognized School Committee Chairman Joel Monteiro recent seating at Budget Commission meetings. While Mr. Monteiro is not a voting member of the Commission, he will be able to speak on school related issues.
“I appreciate any opportunity to be the voice of residents. Whether it’s heavy or light, I’ll do my best,” Mr. Monteiro said of Commission Chairman Diane Brennan’s invite to join the discussion.