2011-11-03 / News

School panel hopefuls discuss, debate issues

BY MARGO SULLIVAN

A meet-the-candidates night on Oct. 26 drew a full house to hear Sarah Baines, Lowell Thomas and B.J. Whitehouse answer questions about important issues facing the Jamestown schools.

The three candidates are vying for two seats on the Jamestown School Committee in a contest to be decided Nov. 8. Whitehouse, a music teacher in the Little Compton school district, now holds one of those seats and is seeking re-election. The second seat is being vacated by Julie Kallfelz, who has decided to step down.

Baines and Thomas are political newcomers. She is a business owner who has been involved with school improvement teams at the Melrose and Lawn Avenue schools and at North Kingstown High. He owns an investment firm and serves on the board of a Maine nonprofit organization, which delivers Outward Bound-style educational experiences to middle school children, many of who are underprivileged.

The Jamestown Shores Association presented the 90-minute event, which was moderated by John A. Murphy.

The audience also submitted written questions, which Murphy read aloud to the candidates. Afterwards, the audience had the opportunity to stand up and ask the candidates a question.

The rules, according to JSA President Nancy Ventrone, gave the candidates one minute to respond to a question and two minutes to rebut or comment on another candidate’s answer.

Over the 90 minutes, the trio fielded a battery of questions about their educational background, their decision to run, personal experience with children in the schools, views on the North Kingstown High tuition agreement, and programs they would sacrifice if the school budget has to be reduced.

The voters also wanted to know where the candidates stood on pension reform, binding arbitration, Jamestown’s allotment of special education students, the School Committee’s role in deciding social questions – like faith-based education – and their opinion of the value of local education based on per-pupil costs.

Over the question about continuing the agreement with North Kingstown High School, Baines broke ranks with Whitehouse and Thomas.

Whitehouse said it was a bit of a moot point. The School Committee has already voted to continue sending students to North Kingstown in 2012, buoyed partly by new North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger, who has made efforts to improve relations with Jamestown. Whitehouse also indicated that the North Kingstown issue is revisited annually.

Thomas said the arrangement with North Kingstown was both long-standing and a good deal. But he also noted North Kingstown is under budget pressure and some conflicts have surfaced between the two school committees.

Baines suggested that the Narragansett school district was still an option. She criticized science scores at North Kingstown High and said she did not see how the district would come up with the money to realign its science curriculum and raise test scores given its current $3.5 million projected budget shortfall. In her view, the Jamestown School Committee is obligated to send children to the best school, even though she anticipated some parents would not like leaving North Kingstown.

Asked how Jamestown ranks statewide on per-pupil cost and whether the community is realizing good value, Baines and Thomas said the town’s $18,000 cost to teach each student ranks above the state average and needs to be brought down. Whitehouse objected to quoting the $18,000 figure, which, he said, was inexact because it failed to incorporate the 200 students on tuition at North Kingstown.

But Baines and Thomas insisted $18,000 was an accurate number.

“B.J.’s numbers are a bit off,” Thomas said. He said the $18,000 does reflect Jamestown’s per-pupil cost from prekindergarten through eighth grade. By comparison, he said, the average per-pupil cost statewide is $15,000, while Barrington, considered R.I.’s leading academic school district, pays $13,500.

“We are always going to have a higher number,” he said, due to the fact that central costs for operating the school district must be spread over a small student population. But he suggested the School Committee would have to “find some savings going forward.”

Baines said the numbers were “skewed” because enrollment has fallen in the Jamestown schools. If that trend continues, she said, one school building will be shuttered, but right now, there are too many students to accommodate in a single school.

All three candidates opposed binding arbitration to settle labor disputes.

Baines described herself as a “wellinformed consumer of schools here.” Her two children, now in college, attended the Jamestown schools and North Kingstown High, she said. Baines and her husband are naturalized U.S. citizens. She emigrated from Great Britain 25 years ago and has lived in town 17 years.

Thomas described himself as “somewhat of a Wall Street refugee.” He is running because he wants to “be part of the community,” he said, and public service is one way he can contribute. He is a bachelor and the only Republican in the race.

Whitehouse and his wife have lived in town since 1989. He is director of the Jamestown Community Chorus and the town’s men’s chorus, and a former member of the Fireworks Committee. He is running because he is committed to service.

Asked about any single issue that ignited their decision to run, all the candidates said they did not have one issue but were running for several reasons.

Baines said she has logged eight to 10 years on school improvement committees and has gained “a lot of understanding of legislation coming down from the State House.” She also has “some issues I feel strongly about” and mentioned “boys being left behind.” Baines chaired a committee, which dealt with the issue of boys’ education, she said.

Thomas wants to bring financial expertise to the table. In this economy, he anticipates “significant pressure on school budgets going forward,” and predicted the state’s money problems will “probably have an impact on taxation and the quality of education.”

Whitehouse said he’s running so kids will come first. Up to now, he said, Jamestown has supported the schools “very well,” and he wants to ensure children continue to have the opportunity to learn.

Asked if Jamestown attracts more than its fair share of special education students, Whitehouse said the answer is probably yes. The U.S. Navy liaison has called Jamestown “the best school district for special education,” and Navy parents may be choosing island schools as a result, he said. The schools control special education costs by educating children within the district as much as possible. Some outof district placements are mandated, however, and in those cases “the costs are the costs,” he said.

Thomas said special education “has been a lightning rod” for complaints about school spending, but he feels the district has made progress in cutting costs, which, he said, are “in line with other districts, the rest of the state, and probably the nation.” Thomas also said the schools have little control over these expenses.

“It is what it is,” he said. “You are mandated by state and federal law. It’s a lot of money, but I think it’s being handled very well.”

Baines said Jamestown probably saw a jump in special education students after employing a leading special education expert.

“She definitely brought a following,” Baines said. That educator has since left for the Narragansett schools, but the special education population is still an issue because of forces outside local control.

“Autism is on the rise,” Baines said. Overall, she said special education was a “cost effective” program and supports parents.

On pension reform, Whitehouse said Jamestown’s liability will soar from $608,000 to a $1 million next year, if nothing changes. If the General Assembly accepts the governor’s plan, on the other hand, Jamestown’s costs will drop next year to $462,000. He could not say if the issue would impede tuition negotiations with North Kingstown. So far, he said, the negotiations have gone well.

Thomas said the pension issue would be one of the looming financial problems threatening the North Kingstown arrangement.

Baines said she did not see how North Kingstown could find the money to fund pensions and still improve education quality.

Asked to name the most important issue for the schools, Whitehouse named several, including pension reform, teacher evaluation and the number of new initiatives introduced by state Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Thomas said the big issue boiled down to finances, finding the money to improve test scores.

Baines said “maintaining quality education for our children,” while keeping the tax base low, was the most important issue.

Asked about sacrifices they could support, Thomas cited retiree health benefits as one area to investigate. He said Jamestown retirees collect more than the state average.

Baines said if necessary, she would cut back on programs with the “least impact on academics.”

“I disagree there have to be cut backs,” Whitehouse said.

Asked about their stand on politically charged issues, such as evolution, Lowell said he did not see these debates coming up.

“First, we don’t live in the South,” he said. “It’s not an issue in R.I.”

Baines said the taxpayers could bring such issues up, but the School Committee would not start the discussion.

“It’s certainly not going to come from the School Committee,” she said. Nonetheless, the panel would “have to address” issues like faith-based education, if requested.

Whitehouse said he follows the Constitution.

“I’m a music teacher,” he said, and he does not speak to his Little Compton music students about religion even when he’s asked for an opinion about the Nativity, for example.

“It has no place in school,” he said. “Not when my taxpayer dollars are funding it.”

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