WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — With about 20 members of the public looking on, an unusually high number compared to previous years, the three Chariho towns, members of the School Committee, and school district administrators gathered for the annual omnibus meeting Wednesday night.
Hope Valley resident Catherine Giusti, who has two children attending Chariho schools, said she had come to learn more about how the district functions.
“I wanted to learn more about the process. I wanted to see how the three towns interacted and I wanted to see areas where we as parents and taxpayers could come together and make changes,” she said.
State representatives who would normally attend were instead at the Statehouse for Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s State of the State address. Two lawmakers, Rep. Donna Walsh, D-District 36, and Rep. Larry Valencia, D-District 39, drove to the omnibus meeting after the governor’s address and arrived late.
The meeting began with Superintendent Barry Ricci’s presentation of the proposed $55 million 2014-15 district budget, followed by a request from Charlestown council member Daniel Slattery for more information on computer security measures that will be in place as the district issues computers to students as part of the 1:1 initiative.
“What is Chariho doing within their own computer security system to ensure that the firewalls are there to prevent the students from going outside,” he asked.
Ricci explained that the firewalls installed on the students’ laptop computers would not only work at school, but also when the students bring their computers home. He added that a federally-mandated in-house committee made decisions regarding which websites would be blocked.
Legislative priorities such as cuts in state aid were discussed only briefly, because the legislators had not yet arrived. School Committee Chairman William Day said the district was a victim of its own success.
“We’re a very high-performing school district and we’re being punished for it,” he said. “Send the money up to the school districts that are not, and that’s what the state’s been doing.”
Although it has not been an issue at previous omnibus meetings, questions were raised in the days leading up to the meeting about whether the towns would be violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by not convening regular council sessions during the omnibus meeting and failing to post their individual agendas 48 hours in advance as the act requires.
Richmond convened a council session and posted its agenda with the 48-hour notice. On that agenda was the current matriculation provision in the Chariho Act that requires children to attend elementary schools in the towns where they live, and the reduction of the school committee from 11 members to 9.
Richmond currently has three members on the committee, while the two other towns have four each.
Hopkinton also convened a council session and posted its agenda, which included a call for an independent management study of the Chariho district and the issue of Hope Valley Elementary School, which some have suggested should close. Ricci said it was premature to contemplate closing the school because Ashaway Elementary, the town’s second elementary school, could not accommodate Hope Valley students without an extensive expansion.
Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi said that in keeping with the provisions of the Open Meetings Act, council members did not engage in any discussions of issues which were not on the town’s published agenda.
“We were forced to publish an agenda, so with that in mind, I couldn’t talk about some of the more contentious issues,” he said. “It was done that way because our hand was forced.”
Like Hopkinton, Charlestown’s participation in the discussions was constrained. The town’s only agenda item was its opposition to reopening the Chariho Act, the result, which councilors asserted, of Richmond’s proposed changes.
“We were invited by the school committee to attend,” Town Council President Thomas Gentz said. “So therefore, if somebody wants to convene as a council, they can convene, but if there’s going to be a concern about that, then we’re here as individuals. I can say exactly what we did at the council meeting because that was unanimous. Everybody voted on that. After that, everybody works as an individual.”
Gentz was referring to the two resolutions passed by the council at its Jan. 13 meeting.
The first asked the school committee to request a referendum asking voters in the three towns to allow parents to send their children to any elementary school they choose. Charlestown also passed a resolution opposing the Richmond proposal to reduce the size of the school committee.
Charlestown and Hopkinton’s limited participation and their opposition to the Richmond proposals thwarted the Richmond councilors’ hopes for an open dialogue. Richmond councilor Erick Davis attempted to convince the other towns that it was important to look at every aspect of the Chariho Act before deciding whether or not to reopen it.
“The voters want to see more budget controls. There are aspects that have been discussed at this meeting and in council chambers in the past that could control expenses, that could balance out different aspects of those tools, whether it be representation or busing or where the kids are going to school that could be changed to save the district money. Those are items to be discussed. If we don’t talk about the entire Act and analyze it, we don’t know what still works and we don’t know what doesn’t. At the end of the discussion, if we decide the entire thing still works, so be it,” he said.
Richmond Town Council President B. Joseph Reddish was diplomatic about the outcome of the meeting.
“We had some good conversation around the matriculation proposal. I still don’t think there’s an understanding of the 9-member [school committee] proposal,” he said.