Audience members ask about high school, keeping Eldredge, demographics
After two hours of presentations that covered everything from the state funding process and tax ramifications to 21st century educational needs and the three different school building proposals, school and town officials heard comments and took questions from several residents who attended the first school construction community public forum Tuesday night at Cole Middle School.
Supt. Brian Ricca made the case for updating educational spaces that have gone largely unchanged for 100 years – classrooms full of desks in neat rows where students face a teacher who tells the students what they need to know. In today’s world, Ricca said, students (like everyone else) carry a worldful of knowledge in the phone in their pocket. They need to be able to work collaboratively and creatively.
Ricca acknowledged, however, that there was a limit to what East Greenwich could afford, a point echoed by Town Manager Andy Nota in his presentation (on the basic financing and tax implications). So, instead of proposing to build five or six brand new schools, officials presented three different options (previously covered HERE), with one or two new elementary schools and renovations at other schools. Under all three plans, Eldredge would cease being used as a school building; one plan would also shutter Meadowbrook.
Following the lengthy presentations, there was a 15-minute break where residents could talk one-on-one with officials. If the idea was to answer a lot of the questions during that break, there were still plenty of questions/comments once the forum reconvened.
During the public comment segment, community members voiced concerns ranging from students being shuffled to different schools, fields being taken offline, and homes being negatively impacted during the construction process.
A major criticism was the idea of eliminating Eldredge as a school altogether.
“I love being able to walk to a school,” said EG resident Mary Casperson of Eldredge. “I understand the school needs work, I’m not going to dismiss that. But I am struggling with eliminating the school altogether.”
Officials addressed the expensive cost of renovating Eldredge, the overcrowding issues the school faces, and maintaining Eldredge as a school even if renovations weren’t done.
“The educational strategy would tell you that grade realignment to go through 1-5 is the most important thing we can do in terms of education and pedagogy, and that’s immutable,” said School Committee member Tim Munoz. He stated that he was speaking only for himself when he said, “Keeping Eldredge is off-strategy. Eldredge cannot work as a 1-5 school. We’ve shown you tonight it doesn’t work as a Pre-K and K school. It doesn’t work.”
Another aspect that didn’t sit well with some in the audience was that only $20 million was being allocated to renovate East Greenwich High School.
“I am a little concerned that more funds aren’t going to the high school,” said community member Jennifer Bailek. “I don’t think $20 million is going to scratch the surface there.” She added, “I feel like we’ll be back here in five years asking for more without the state backing.”
Both Supt. Ricca and consultant Derek Osterman said while the high school did need upgrading, the overcrowded elementary schools were the catalyst for this phase of the construction planning. This prompted more than one audience member to point out that many EG residents pull their children from the town school system after they graduate from Cole.
Several people questioned whether the plans would accommodate what they worried would be a continued increase in enrollment. Officials said the plans did account for more students than the district has now but that another concern would be to overbuild. School Committee member Gene Quinn noted that most of the housing currently under construction or in the planning stages in EG were not single family homes – traditionally the main source of school-age children.
In addition to the two-hour presentation and addressing questions from residents, the committee made two announcements regarding ongoing community engagement.
The first is a series of guided tours of each school building that is proposed to be renovated.
The second is a new town website, to be unveiled soon, where the committee will provide updates on the proposed plans and allow community members to provide feedback and ask questions, according to Town Manager Nota, who offered a preview of the website.
Another public forum-style meeting will take place at Cole Middle School next week on Thursday, March 30.
Written with Elizabeth McNamara.