standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — A proposal to ask Gov. Gina Raimondo to grant the School Department the authority to sets its own school opening date has lost steam.

Town Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. proposed a resolution that would ask the governor to allow local school districts to set their own school-year start dates rather than abiding the statewide schedule Raimondo has imposed as part of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The whole point is about local control of our schools — once the state takes the power away you're never going to get it back," Cooke said.

Raimondo announced in early June that all public schools in the state would start on Aug. 31. Cooke, executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association, said starting then would hurt businesses that rely on tourism.

Councilor Sharon Ahern said she agreed with Cooke, despite being reluctant to take a position in opposition to the School Committee and Raimondo.

"In Rhode Island we have home rule, it's why we have our own charter. We've been given, historically, significant local power. I think this contradicts that," Ahern said.

Councilor Brian McCuin agreed, saying towns, cities, and school districts should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Councilor Suzanne Giorno said she believed Raimondo's policy was based solely on a plan for responding to the pandemic and giving students as much time to interact with each other and their teachers before a possible need to revert to distance learning. "I don't think having Aug. 31 dictated by the governor took away any of our local authority. I think it's based on the COVID," Giorno said.

Councilor Karen Cioffi said continuity among cities and towns in the state would be beneficial.

Councilor William Aiello, saying he was "torn" on the issue, suggested a joint resolution from the council and the School Committee. He said he understood governor's position as well as his colleagues' concern about giving up local control.

Council president Christopher Duhamel said he was inclined to follow Raimondo's plan for safety in the face of COVID-19, particularly if school officials seemed inclined to do the same.

A majority of School Committee members, during a June 24 meeting, said they supported Raimondo's opening date. Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she had heard from several teachers and parents who favored the town keeping in line with the state calendar.

"We're not in these seats to help our businesses, we're in these seats to help our kids," Chiaradio Bowdy said.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said state officials are concerned that distance learning maybe necessary if the routine flu season coincides with an outbreak of COVID-19.

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