EAST PROVIDENCE — As expected emotions ran high Wednesday night, Jan. 23, at a special public hearing conducted by the East Providence School Committee in the Riverside Middle School auditorium on the topic of the possible closure of the James R.D. Oldham Elementary School located on Bullocks Point Avenue.
The three-plus hour session featured another explanation of the decision to recommend shuttering Oldham by Interim School Superintendent Dr. John DeGoes, comments by School Committee Chairman Joel Monteiro and his counterparts as well as some pointed remarks and questions from concerned parents who do not want to see their neighborhood school closed.
Mr. Monteiro began the meeting by asking those from the audience who chose to speak to be brief, but few heeded his plea.
“We have a very important decision before us as a committee and a town as a whole,” Mr. Monteiro added. “Hopefully we can clear up some of the questions you may have and answer some of your concerns.”
From the nature of the queries and the tenor of the words, however, it was clear most parents left the room still wondering what lay ahead.
Much of the reason for that unease comes from the fact that neither Dr. DeGoes nor the School Committee had any real concrete responses to several questions. More important, neither the superintendent nor the committee will make the final decision on Oldham’s closure.
The ultimate choice falls to the state-appointed Budget Commission, which instructed Dr. DeGoes to come up with a cost-saving plan for his department and has considered shutting down the school for the last several months. For contractual and practical considerations, a decision on if Oldham will close must be made sometime in the next six weeks.
If Oldham is shut down, Dr. DeGoes has proposed moving all students in Grades 1 to 5 to nearby Waddington Elementary. All incoming Kindergarten students from both areas would attend Meadowcrest.
Dr. DeGoes reiterated the need to spend upwards of $2.1 million on necessary repairs at Oldham and the lack of funding available to do so as the main reasons why he recommended closing the building.
It would also cause the least disruption to students and was the most cost-efficient in terms of transportation. Most if not all teachers at Oldham would follow their students to Waddington and Meadowcrest.
Parents of current Oldham students raised concerns about overcrowding and safety at Waddington with the introduction of some 170 new students into the latter. Dr. DeGoes said Waddington has held over 600 students at other points in its history, more than if Oldham pupils are added now. Acting East Providence Fire Chief Oscar Elmasian said the building, while in need of some upgrades, meets most fire code standards.
Parents also highlighted Oldham’s position as one of better performing schools in the city as a reason for keeping it open. And if it were to close, they asked if Title I funding Oldham receives for technological and academic assistance would follow to Waddington. Dr. DeGoes said the Title I monies, derived from a federal program for students at risk of failure and living at or near the poverty level, would not.
Dr. DeGoes did tell parents he would recommend to the Budget Commission that it direct any and all funding currently geared towards Oldham to Waddington in the future. He also said he or his successor would work closely with Waddington Principal Patricia Barlow to formulate a plan to make the transition as smooth as possible and to continue to provide all students with a quality education.
Again, though, this did little to allay the fears of parents, who feel they’ve been mislead in recent years as constant rumors have swirled about Oldham’s status.
In regard to those rumors, the steady dispersal of students in recent years from Oldham to other schools in the city as well as the use of bond money for purposes other than addressing issues specific to the building, both School Committee members Tony Ferreira and Tim Conley accused some of their predecessors and administrators with malfeasance.
“You’ve been lied to,” Mr. Ferreira said, bluntly. Mr. Conley, who serves Ward 4 where Oldham is located, said he believed figures show some $2.1 in bond money approved for use at Oldham in 2010 has been diverted to improvements at East Providence High School.
In the end, nothing was resolved Wednesday. In fact, a comment Dr. DeGoes made in his introductory statements at the beginning of the meeting summed up the evening.
“You know better than I this is an emotional issue,” Dr. DeGoes said. “And emotional consideration often clouds a sound and logical rationale. I hope you take that into consideration tonight.”
He added, “It was a very difficult choice, a very difficult decision to make, but if we have to close a school there really is no other choice. Oldham is the school to be closed.”