North Kingstown’s four contenders for three seats on the School Committee took to the stage Thursday evening for night two of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce and NorthEast Independent’s candidate forums.
Democrat Lynda Avanzato, the lone incumbent on the panel, sat beside a trio of According to Manocchia, the three meet on a regular basis as of late to discuss school issues.
“I know for a fact that if you elect the three of us, you will have a significantly improved unit in terms of cooperation, collaboration, etc.” said Manocchia.
The topic of collaboration and cooperation, both within the School Committee and with the North Kingstown Town Council, was heavily addressed during the one-hour forum. All candidates agreed the current discourse of the committee needs major improvement.
“We can’t have any more public outbursts by school committee members,” said Clarkin, who suggested that members attend professional development or team building workshops.
According to Avanzato, five of the seven members of the current committee “conduct themselves courteously” while the remaining two are “disorderly.” Jones proposed employing Barrington’s policy of having a student sit on the committee.
Tensions between the School Committee and Town Council came to a head this year when the town took the school department to court after school officials projected a possible revenue deficit late last year.
“It’s an embarrassment and a lot of my neighbors feel it’s a disgrace,” said Manocchia, chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island.
Litigation with the town isn’t the only legal battles for the School Committee. The school department is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the North Kingstown Education Support Professionals union following failed contract negotiations and the controversial outsourcing of the school district’s custodians.
“The amount of money we spend litigating is unfortunate,” said Jones. “We could probably fund the hockey team and other programs if we weren’t litigating.”
According to Jones, his work with Gary Sasse in creating the Bryant Institute for Public Leadership (educating towns and city officials on “collaborative decision-making) would benefit the School Committee if elected.
As for the outsourcing of custodians, Clarkin, Manocchia and Avanzato agreed with the decision to outsource the district’s janitorial services to outside company GCA. Jones, who did not directly support or disagree with the measure, said that decisions, such as outsourcing personnel, should be looked at in a cost-effective manner and done with transparency.
Candidates also discussed another contentious move recently made by the committee – the change of start times. This academic year, school start times were altered after two buses were cut from the school’s fleet. The change resulted in earlier start times for the high school and later start times for most elementary schools, causing outcry from many parents.
“Although busing is an important issue with parents and their lifestyles, everyone has to sacrifice,” said Avanzato. “We’re asking people to sacrifice their jobs and benefits. We’re running out of options.”
For the other three candidates, the busing issue should be a higher priority. Clarkin pointed to studies that showed a correlation between students with early start times and low test scores.
“What is a little disconcerting is we make some decisions and we make them for budgetary reasons but don’t analyze the impact,” said Jones.