Westerly School Superintendent Mark Garceau, Ed. D

Twice in recent years, Westerly’s residents have rejected bond issues that would have upgraded school facilities. Now, with the coronavirus draining financial resources from the community, the prospects of another bond issue are slim.

Meanwhile, the school superintendent and school committee are struggling to find $1.6 million cut from its budget proposal by the Town Council. The Council level funded the schools.

Some savings have trimmed about $600,000, but that still leaves a million-dollar gap. Staff cuts are likely. Christine Cooke, school committee chair, said last week that School Superintendent Mark Garceau, Ed. D will be meeting with the teachers’ union in anticipation of possible layoffs.

Westerly, one of Rhode Island’s waterfront communities relies upon tourism as a significant part of its economy, the sector that has been most impacted by he coronavirus. This is a community that relies on resilience and determination, celebrating together (last year’s 350th anniversary) and drawing together in crisis (a double homicide late in the year at a housing complex).

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WhatsUpNewp wanted to explore how Westerly is faring during these bleak coronavirus weeks. What we found was a town, like so many others, filled with uncertainty, struggling to gain some economic footing, and embracing new methods of providing education to students from pre-school to high school

We have looked at the economy, mainly through the eyes of Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. Today, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau gives us a tour of the school system now, and its uncertain future.

The Schools

Graduation

Garceau: “Our High School administration is working with teacher and student leaders to plan for a virtual graduation experience at a minimum. We are also exploring the possibility of an ‘early reunion’ or some sort of Senior Banquet in the fall or during the holiday recess next year. The fear is that we may be in the same position (or worse) eight months from now. If that turns out to be the case, we run the risk of not be able to even do that.

“We have received multiple offers from vendors and others looking to support us in this and we plan to be able to share full details on our planning very soon. The high school principal, Mike Hobin, takes all of this very seriously and is committed to making this a positive and memorable experience for our students and their families.

“Our obvious challenge is doing something that honors our graduates, allows for their families to celebrate their achievements and which is safe and meets the expectations of the Governor, the Department of Health and the Department of Education. Graduation is an important right of passage and for many this will be their only graduation in life (others, but not all, will have other opportunities at college). We get that, but these are obviously unprecedented times.”

Budget and School Building Project

Garceau: “We are experiencing serious budget concerns. At the same time, we are experiencing savings this spring due to buildings being closed. We are working through how we might leverage these to address our shortfalls. We are working through the budget process for the most part as we normally would.

“We adjust staffing each year in response to student needs so that continues. The School Committee has also decided to cut ties with the Community Center. This has positively impacted the operating budget. We are working with the town to transfer the services offered there over to the Town of Westerly purview.”

Note: The Council has accepted the building, the former Tower Street School. The main program that is housed in the building is a community center. Cooke has estimated the savings to be about $300,000 with another $300,000 plus from savings that has resulted from the closure of school buildings during the coronavirus pandemic. That still leaves a million dollars to be found and Cooke said Garceau will be meeting with the teachers’ union this week to discuss teacher staffing.

Meanwhile, Governor Raimondo has suggested that when students return to the classroom, there will be fewer students per class. Cooke and Garceau see that as unlikely, as school departments grapple with budget constraints.

Garceau on the school building project: “I think any building projects are firmly on hold for the time being. We don’t know what to expect regarding the economy at any level and we have our hands full right now keeping kids learning, smiling, and fed right.”

September and Staffing

Garceau: “September seems a lifetime from now. Obviously, we would love to see all this go away as quickly as it came upon us. We are hopeful that we will be back in our buildings, but ‘confident’ is not a word I would use this week. We also have yet to hear about teachers deciding against returning in the fall. It will not, however, surprise me at all to learn that some, especially some of our ‘veteran’ staff have some anxieties about returning. As the Governor has stated, returning to work for those 60 and older may need to look a bit different. What that means is not yet clear to any of us.”

Grading

Garceau: “With respect to grading, we have not made many adjustments at the secondary level. We have revised some of the expectations around senior project graduation requirements considering the need for distancing.

“At the elementary level, it is a bit easier to narrow the focus to those key skills, understandings and habits of mind that our students need for success in the next grade. In response, we have made some adjustments to grading and expectations at the elementary level. We have identified what we refer to as ‘power standards’ and are upping our particular attention to those.

“These adjustments to grading are intended to also consider performance and successes in this new digital domain. The challenge is that we would never want to hold kids accountable for their inability to gain the same levels of access to learning that their peers may experience. Impediments could be tech, food insecurity, parent support, etc. related, but these are all real factors. Ensuring Equity of Access is always a challenge, but it may be even more important now.”

College Admissions

Garceau: “We haven’t experienced any problems (yet) with college admissions. Fortunately, this all happened late enough in the year that most acceptances and decisions were already in the works. I am a bit concerned about the ability for kids to tour campuses this fall and winter in anticipation of enrollment in Fall 2021. I think with standardized testing being postponed, delayed, etc. colleges are going to need to rethink their application processes. I expect that candidate interviews (via Skype or other) will be playing a larger role going forward. Not a bad thing necessarily, but the schools will need to add staff and capacity if they do go that way.”

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Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.