As a resident of South Kingstown, I have watched the recent debates regarding the school committee unfold. We can, and more importantly we must, do better and work together to solve our SK public school problems. It is clear that we have a problem. I believe that all points of view can agree with this statement. This may seem like a new problem, but it is not. Let’s go back in time for a little perspective.
In November of 2004, I watched as a quiet debate began regarding declining enrollment. My two children were at South Road School in kindergarten and first grade. SK schools were held in very high regard. Broad Rock Middle School had opened in 2001 and was doing well by all accounts. There were 4,072 kids in district schools, but this was down from 4,383 in 1994 and on its way to 3,581 with in the decade. During the debates, the candidates were asked about closing a school and all agreed it was not needed.
A few weeks after the election, my kids come home crying. That day in December, Superintendent Dr. Robert Hicks had delivered a letter to South Road School. South Road School was closing in June of 2005. The kids would be redistricted and sent to 3 different schools.
Dr. Hicks determined that South Road School was the most logical school to close. There was no community discussion about which school or when. Just an announcement. The school committee meetings became a very popular Tuesday night event. People became upset and it was a divisive time. Several parents got together, mostly from South Road School, but also from the entire district, to start a discussion. I become one of the leaders of this group in order to question the decision regarding the closure. I was highly involved in all the meetings and was even on the news when ABC 6 did a story about South Kingstown School Department’s declining enrollment.
It was a difficult time. Political decisions can pit community member against each other, but in my experience, when it involves kids, it is brought to a whole new level. The timeline to vote for the School Committee to approve Dr. Hicks’ plan was tight due to budgeting. It all had to be done in roughly 14 weeks.
The School Committee had many meetings in that time frame and gave everyone the opportunity to talk. The meetings went on for hours, past 11pm on many occasions. They were intense, and when the police began to come and stand in the back I feared we were heading down a dangerous path. A few weeks prior to the vote, while leaving one of the meetings, I witnessed a physical confrontation take place in the parking lot at the high school. I knew then, as a community, we needed to do better.
The night of the vote arrived, and the school committee voted 6-1 to close South Road School. This became a turning point, least for me, we decided to work together and find a solution that benefited all the children. The closing was difficult, but we did the best we could and worked together.
Fast forward to the summer of 2006, one of school committee members called and asked me to run for the school committee in the upcoming election. They said my business and finance background would be an asset. After many discussions with my family, I decided to run. My touchstone was simple.
Kids come first.
All major decisions, like closing a school, would be debated and planned out for years, not weeks. Community outreach groups were formed as well.
I served from 2006-2010, then ran again and served from 2010-2014. Needless to say, a lot went on in those 8 years. Did I get it all right, no, but stayed true to the ‘kids come first’ touchstone. Due to work and family commitments, I stepped aside in 2014 but stayed on as a community member for the Accountability Sub Committee. I knew decision time was coming for school consolidation soon and was proud that the next committee was ready to tackle the challenge, with the same touchstone that was my core back in 2006.
A frequent comment I received regarding the closure from those in both the leadership team as well as the community between 2006-2007 was that we had to decide quickly. Otherwise, a debate may tear the community apart. A debate that dragged on could pit neighborhood school against each other. However I was convinced that a longer debate and community input was necessary.
Sadly, over the last 18 months, I have seen a community divided over the same debate that we faced more than 15 years ago. Simply put, I was wrong, this is tearing us apart.
We do not have enough students to fill the number of seats that are available. In 2005 we closed South Road School and eliminated roughly 250 seats. It is clear to me, as well as most of the community, that we must deal with this again. Declining enrollment is not just a South Kingstown problem, it is a statewide problem.
I do not have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions on how we can do better. First of all, the kids come first regardless of what school they attend.
Furthermore, all community members should work together, with the priority being that the kids come first, to find a solution.
I know it is not that simple, but at the very least, a worthy goal to strive towards. The sooner we start, the faster we will arrive. Kids come first, let’s work together to solve the problem.