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NORTH KINGSTOWN — In their first meeting following the election, and coming on the day the first quarter of the 2020/21 academic year wrapped up, the North Kingstown School Committee met Tuesday evening via Zoom and discussed several issues, including setting forth a capital improvement plan (CIP) for Fiscal Year 2022 ahead of an upcoming meeting with the Town Council and debating language regarding the role of the student representative liaison.

The meeting also marked the end for current vice chairman and eight-year committee member Robert Jones, who lost his seat in the election earlier this month. Accolades came from across the board, with his fellow committee members as well as Superintendent Phil Auger and the district Chief Operating Officer Mary King praising him for his work.

“You’ve been a resource among resources,” Chairman Greg Blasbalg said. “I’m very, very sorry not to have you with us going forward.”

Auger called him “the Rhode Island expert on charter schools,” while King said he’s one of the best data analyzers she’s ever met. 

“Thank you Bob for all you’ve done for us, you’ll be truly missed,” Committee member Jennifer Hoskins said. 

The meeting also marked the last appearance for current student liaison Joe Vento, as the senior’s three-year tenure came to a close and the future of what his now former position entails was one of the hot topics of the night.

In addition to acting as the student representative, Vento  also operated a political action group during the election season which endorsed Democratic Party candidates for office.

A proposal was put forth on the agenda to change the language of the School Committee’s policy manual by moving the student representative from being seated at the table to being part of the audience and giving quarterly reports on NKHS student government activities.

Several students complained about the proposal during public comment, including Vento himself, who told the committee not to proceed with the measure.

“This policy, it’s not about me, it’s about the role that future student representatives will play,” Vento said.

Auger later addressed the issue directly, saying that he was the one who put the language in there and while he commended Vento for using his voice, he said he had been the only student representative in the past 12 years to speak up at all and would prefer to hear from a group of students from the Student Union rather than just one voice.

He said that while the student representative does have a voice, they are not a member of the School Committee itself and for that reason shouldn’t be sat as if they are one. 

In the end, though, he said the decision was up to the members of the School Committee and he wouldn’t be bothered much either way regarding their decision.

“Your will on this issue is up to you,” Auger told the committee.

Going back to the committee, member Lisa Hildebrand said her daughter is involved with student government at the high school and pondered whether or not that influenced her disapproval of the proposal, but came to the conclusion that she found it wrong regardless and that taking the student representative away from the table would rob the committee of being able to hear quick clarifications from a student perspective and sent the wrong message.

Jones saw where Auger was coming from, saying that it’s important to make sure meetings stay on track and follow proper procedure and that he felt in the long run the proposal would lead to strengthening shared governance by encouraging more reporting of student government activities, and that he particularly liked the language of Auger and Blasbalg “mentoring” the student representative, which he said would also help the student become a better liaison. 

Committee member Jacob Mather said that student input was needed from “more than just the audience” and that it was “inappropriate” to take the seat at the table away, a point echoed by Blasbalg.

“I also believe that the student representative should have a seat at the table,” Blasbalg said. 

Blasbalg though agreed with Jones on the mentorship role, saying it would be helpful to the next student representative and create a better understanding of open meeting and Robert’s rules, as well as liking the idea of having a quarterly report done, and proposed new language that would bring those two into practice while still keeping the student representative seated at the table.

Blasbalg’s changes passed 4-1 with Jones in opposition before the updated language passed unanimously. 

The other major topic of the night was the CIP, with the School Committee preparing to hold a biennial joint session with the Town Council on Dec. 7 to discuss matters pertaining to the fiscal year ahead. 

King said that as it’s been for her past nine years with the district, capital is the most important issue going forward, specifically noting needed repairs to the district’s oldest facility, Wickford Middle School. 

“We must put money into Wickford Middle School in order to continue putting students in the building,” King said. 

Auger agreed, adding that in his view, a lot of the smaller issues are ignored in favor of larger projects until they grow too big and become more costly.

“Things like libraries and auditoriums get forgotten when there’s an issue with the building’s facade or boilers,” Auger said.

He also pointed to the decades-old desks in many of the schools as an often forgotten piece that’s never budgeted for. 

In the proposal, the School Committee plans on asking for $1.5 million in CIP for FY2022, with the annual district capital items proposed of $75,000 budgeted for transportation, $50,000 for playgrounds, $150,000 for the turf field, $225,000 for technology and $100,000 for security, while Jones added several more specific proposals, including $100,000 in athletic capital for lighting, $100,000 in academic capital for the libraries, as well as $25,000 for auditoriums/arts and $50,000 for classrooms, as well as $100,000 in district capital for parking lots and sidewalks and $500,000 for the Physical Plant.

Auger endorsed Jones’ recommendations, while King specified that the CIP differed from the district’s general funds. 

Jones cited the importance of receiving the CIP by pointing to a lack of funding coming from the state and its impact on the district as a whole.

“Without a state budget we are being cut state aid every month,” Jones said.

Blasbalg agreed with the points, noting that the district has never had consistent CIP funding levels in his time on the School Committee, and said planning ahead with these funds now could be the difference between saving money at home for things you may need and taking out a loan with interest for issues that have gone on too long.

The proposal passed unanimously and will be discussed further at the upcoming joint meeting with the Town Council.

In other business, Auger also gave an update regarding the current COVID situation in the district, saying that while the district is concerned with the statewide increase in cases that they haven’t seen significant transmissions within the schools over the first quarter, and set the rate of transmission for hybrid students and full distance learning students was about even overall.

Auger said that he could envision an outbreak within a school community sending them into a few days or week or two of distance learning, but that he didn’t think it’d be likely to see a return to long term distance learning like last year, when all in person education ended in mid-March and the remainder of the school year was held fully remote. 

“Everybody has a responsibility (to stay safe),” Auger said, adding that it was up to everyone to ensure and protect in-person learning. 

As previously stated, the School Committee will hold a biennial meeting session with the Town Council during their meeting on Dec. 7, while the next regular meeting of the School Committee itself will be held the next day, Dec. 8.

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