Warwick schools open despite sick calls

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — They haven’t had a contract for more than a year, and dozens of Warwick’s public school teachers called in sick Thursday — right as the district is entering fresh controversy over consolidating schools further.

The city’s school superintendent, Dr. Philip Thornton, sent an email to parents Wednesday afternoon saying there had been “several credible reports” that city’s teachers union was reportedly encouraging members to call in sick Thursday.

“We are attempting to confirm this information today,” Dr. Thornton said. “It could be that this is merely a rumor.”

Thornton said Thursday morning that 82 teachers called in sick, but classes would be held as scheduled.

Eyewitness News spoke with the union president Darlene Netcoh, who said leadership has not pressured anyone to do such a thing. In fact, she said she would advise membership not to do it.

“It’s a terrible rumor the superintendent is spreading,” Netcoh said. “All of that is a lie. There is no sick out, I never pressured anyone.”

Superintendent Thornton told Eyewitness News teachers report absences through a computer system.

“I can tell you in the last half hour since our message went out, we had several teachers un-select their sickness.”

Second of two controversies

The walkout rumor comes the day after Warwick’s school committee voted to consolidate two of the city’s elementary schools to the chagrin of parents and teachers.

In the city of 81,971 people, student enrollment has been declining in the past couple of decades. It led to the shutdown of a high school and two junior high schools and turning a high school into a junior high over the past summer.

That change already has drawn parents’ ire; some claim classrooms and hallways are too crowded after this reshuffle.

“They made a huge mess out of secondary consolidation,” said Netcoh on Tuesday night after the committee’s vote. “And they are certainly not ready to do anything with elementary.”

The committee approved the closure of Randall Holden and John Wickes Elementary schools, but it won’t happen until the 2018-2019 school year. Incoming sixth-graders will start transitioning next year. John Brown Francis Elementary will also become an early childhood center.

Bethany Furtado, the chair of the Warwick School Committee, said Warwick’s enrollment has been dropping just like other communities. “To have sixteen or seventeen elementary schools — with a population of less than half of what we were used to… In the late 80s and early 90s, we were at 20,000. We’re now just hovering above eight.”

Netcoh disapproves of any elementary consolidation. “They made a huge mess out of secondary consolidation. And they are certainly not ready to do anything with elementary. They did consolidate elementary schools a few years ago, so I think they should leave elementary alone right now.”

If the district doesn’t go forward with consolidation promptly, the cost will be significant, Furtado said.

But she could not speak Tuesday night to the question of whether there would be teacher layoffs.

Mayor Scott Avedisian also commented on the matter. He said, “we have very dedicated teachers. And I don’t think that they would want to be involved in that kind of an action, because I think it would reflect poorly on the whole system.”