WESTERLY — Three of the four candidates seeking election in November to the School Committee took turns answering questions on the proposed elementary school redesign project, school safety and per pupil spending Thursday during a forum organized by the South County League of Women Voters.
The fourth candidate, Patricia Panciera, was unable to attend as she recovers from a stroke she suffered earlier this month. An audience of about 30 attended the forum in Town Hall.
The forum featured unaffiliated candidate Mary Adams, who is seeking her first term, incumbent Republican Marianne Nardone and Democrat Diana Serra, who is looking to return to elective politics after a brief break from longtime service on both the School Committee and the Town Council. The election is scheduled for Nov. 6.
Adams touched on the school redesign project during her opening and closing remarks and all three candidates fielded a question on the topic.
“After five years of studying this issue we must move forward mostly for our students, but also for our teachers and our staff who are working in substandard and uncertain conditions that we cannot subject them to any longer,” Adams said.
The $63.5 million plan calls for fifth-graders to be returned to an elementary school environment, and would ensure that all of the children in the public schools would attend Grades 3-5 in a newly built facility at the current site of the State Street School. Approximately $5 million would be allocated toward Springbrook Elementary School and $8.5 million to Dunn’s Corners Elementary School for renovations to make each into a pre-kindergarten through Grade 2 facility. The local overall cost to Westerly, after anticipated aid from the state, would be between $29 million and $39 million.
Serra acknowledged a need to improve the elementary schools but withheld judgment on the plan, saying it would be premature to comment until more is known about the availability of state reimbursement funds. At the same time, Serra said her years in elected office taught her the importance of generating consensus around a plan in order to “present and sell it to the taxpayers.”
The plan was narrowly endorsed by a 4-3 vote of the School Committee in July. Nardone, who is retired from a decades long career as a teacher and public school administrator, said she voted against the plan because of its cost and because of a lack of sufficient information about it. She added that working in a school with about 600 students, the projected number of students to be housed at the facility envisioned for State Street, can present significant challenges to teaches and administrators.
On a question regarding whether people with concealed carry permits should be allowed to bring guns into schools, Nardone said she supported state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Ken Wagner’s directive to ban all firearms on public school grounds except those carried by law enforcement officers. The directive was supported by Gov. Gina Raimondo. “I support what the commissioner is saying,” Nardone said.
Adams called for improved communication by district officials on existing school security measures, such as a school safety officer who meets regularly with school staff; locks on classroom doors; and building access systems. Serra acknowledged the existing security strategies and called for increased dialogue with Westerly Hospital and violence victims groups.
Serra defended the district’s per pupil spending rate, which was described in a question as being $20,000 per student. The rate is determined, Serra said, by the need to accommodate an array of student learning styles.
“Every town is different...I commend the town on spending $21,000 per pupil. All children are different learners, we have to meet the needs of the students and we, by law, have to educate those students no matter what their needs are,” Serra said.
Nardone noted that the per pupil spending figure was recently reported by The Sun and the state as being $20,700 per student. The spending is influenced by many factors including student teacher ratios, special education costs, and career programs, she said. “Depending on what student-teacher ratio a school district and a community wants to offer, that raises the costs,” Nardone said
Adams said the costs are driven by contracts with district employees. “Sometimes what happens is we go into negotiations without an understanding of how much money our budget will bear,” Adams said.
House District 38
Brian Patrick Kennedy, the incumbent Democrat seeking re-election to represent House District 38, and Michael Geary, his unaffiliated challenger, faced off in a forum that followed the one featuring the School Committee candidates. Kennedy said he would support the reappointment of Nicholas A. Mattiello as speaker of the House if Mattiello is re-elected.
Geary said he would not be allowed to vote on the speaker because of his status as an unaffiliated voter. Kennedy, who has served in the General Assembly for 30 years, corrected his challenger. “Everyone votes, you would have an opportunity,” he said.
Both candidates said they were opposed to Wagner’s directive on concealed carry weapons, saying individuals who are granted permits undergo a thorough vetting process.
On the issue of tolls on I-95, Kennedy noted that he supported the move to collect tolls from large trucks but said he would vote against any effort to expand the measure to passenger vehicles unless it was approved by voters in statewide referendum. Geary, who manages a transportation fleet for the Frito-Lay food company, said he remains opposed to the tolls and predicted that car drivers would soon have to pay as well.