“It’s the best move at this time, the only move. Any other move would be cost-prohibitive.”
Interim East Providence Superintendent John DeGoes made that statement to the School Committee Thursday night in recommending the closure of Oldham School in Riverside – one of the oldest schools and the smallest elementary school in the city.
All pupils at Oldham but new kindergarten kids and the staff would be moved to Waddington Elementary School in Riverside. Kindergarten pupils would attend the Meadowcrest School.
DeGoes made that recommendation after being charged by the East Providence Budget Commission to trim the school budget by closing a school because of declining enrollment.
The RI Department of Education also does not favor spending between $2 million and $2.5 million on fire safety, security and the roof for the deteriorating building, DeGoes said.
Closing Oldham School also disrupts the fewest number of students, 178, and it adds no additional transportation costs, he said.
“I do not like the idea of closing a school,” DeGoes said. “And I did everything I could to find an alternative to closing Oldham. But we’ll need to spend money on safety issues or state officials won’t open it. And there isn’t enough money to address all the safety conditions at all the schools. I don’t think we can keep all the schools open.”
A public hearing to discuss the recommendation, probably to be held at the Riverside Middle School, will be scheduled.
As could have been anticipated, the interim superintendent’s recommendation was met with some emotional criticism and outright disdain by some parents and Oldham School supporters and a couple of School Committee members.
School Committee member Timothy Conley may have been the harshest critic of the superintendent’s recommendation.
“I couldn’t disagree with you more,” Conley said. “It’s the best performing school in the district and you’re closing it. This is positively representative of why the East Providence Budget Commission had to come into the city.”
“There is absolutely no way I would support this,” he said. “Oldham is a model of success.”
His remarks drew loud applause from several dozen people in the audience.
The major issues are the renovations that need to be done to the building to open it next September, DeGoes said. All the elementary schools need to be brought up to fire codes, including the need for interior doors, windows, hardware and a fire alarm system. All have security issues.
But Oldham appears to have the most structural problems, and “we really don’t have enough money to go around,” he said.
The district’s operating budget needs to be cut as well, DeGoes said after the meeting. And there is unused classroom space in other schools with enrollment declining. The state doesn’t like to see that.
“Waddington can house up to around 600 students,” he said. “It will be able to handle the additional students.”
Shuttering the school would only save an estimated $70,000 a year for utilities and maintenance costs, DeGoes said. No teachers will be laid off. They will all be moved to Waddington.
It’s the rehabilitation costs that are the major expenses, he said.
Many of the people who were given time to respond to his recommendation had an issue with the estimated costs for the renovations. So did School Committee member Anthony Ferreira.
“We need hard cost figures,” he said. “We need exact figures. People expect that.”
City Councilor Chrissy Rossi of Riverside, a former School Committee member, had numerous criticisms of the recommendation, including its impact on children even though they would all still be together in Waddington.
“Closing a school that is excelling is not good for our children,” she said.
“One high performing school in the district and we’re closing it,” Conley said. “The costs don’t justify closing this school.”
DeGoes took exception to Conley’s comments about Oldham being the only high performing school in East Providence.
“I reject that comment,” said DeGoes. “All of our schools are high performing. I would be happy to send any of my children to any of the schools. I don’t want you to give the impression that there is only one school that is great. That’s not right.”
“A remedy is needed that effects the least number of students,” he said.
Valerie Lawson, who heads the teachers’ union, agreed with the superintendent about the quality of all the schools. But she said the union is still an advocate for maintaining all the neighborhood schools.
School Committee Chairman Joel Monteiro defended DeGoes and his recommendation. He also agreed after the meeting that the School Committee would probably see the same type of reaction from the parents at any other school recommended for closure
“He followed the instructions given to him, and he picked the best option,” Monteiro said. “I’m not ready to lose a school either. But he did his job. This is not an enjoyable situation for any of us. It’s not pleasant for any of us.”
DeGoes said he considered several other alternatives while looking at space in all the other schools.
Among the other options: moving all the fifth grades to the middle schools ,and combining the fifth- and sixth-graders and the seventh- and eighth-graders in the two middle schools.
“I could see some education benefit” in the latter, he said. “But the problem was the cost factor, and displacing students from all the schools – not just one – while making a major reorganization of school lines.”
“Those options didn’t work,” he said. “My final conclusion was to close Oldham School.”