Local candidates for state offices attended the Woonsocket Candidate Education Forum Monday night at Woonsocket High School hosted by Woonsocket's Parent Advisory Council.
PAC members Cindy Stepanian and Tony Gabriele organized the event, and were set up with PAC flyers just inside the school entrance greeting people as they showed up.
Candidates Senator Roger A. Picard, (D-Dist. 20), Senator Marc A. Cote, (D-Dist. 24), Representative Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49) Rep. John D. Brien (D-Dist. 51) Rep. Robert D. Phillips (D-Dist. 51), candidate for Dist. 51 Stephen M. Casey and candidate for Dist. 50 Christopher Roberts attended.
Candidate for Dist. 49 Michael Moniz did not attend the event. He also did not show up for the Candidate's Night at Chan's Aug. 28.
Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan, the moderator for the evening started off asking each candidate their views on education in Woonsocket. Audio clips of the entire evening are available at Mywoonsocket.com's "In Their Own Words" section. Candidate responses to Donoyan's opening question, taken from those recordings with Mywoonsocket.com's permission, are printed below:
"I'm quite surprised that this auditorium is not full tonight," Casey said, "I think that that presents one of the problems we're having here in Woonsocket given the nature of what's going on within our city and the nature of what's happening within the school department. I think we have a little bit of a state of apathy in Woonsocket," he said, adding that people have given up and don't know where to turn.
Casey said he would fight for more education aid for the city, and the city should prepare children for opportunities for higher education that the state's national representatives are working to provide. "I think it's our responsibility to prepare our children for these opportunities. And I think that some people may feel, residents of the city may feel that the school department is a glorified babysitting situation, and it's not." Rather, he said, it's part of the process of preparing children for a college education, one that depends on parents sending their children to school ready to learn. "They need to be well fed, they need to be able to stay awake in class, and I think a lot of the responsibility should be held to the parents." Also, he said, "Children need to be ready to go to school. They need to be taught every day that they have an opportunity and they will have an opportunity and they need to have hope."
Donoyan asked Phillips the same question.
Phillips said teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators that are trying to teach to constantly shifting rules. "The teachers and the paraprofessionals have to keep adapting to new standards," he said.
Phillips said he agreed that education starts at home. "I think a lot of this starts with the family unit." He said that in many homes in the city, children start at a disadvantage. "They don't have a secure home that they can call, and say that they have, a very friendly learning environment. And that's what we need to stress to whichever parent or parents are there, is that they need to nurture their kids themselves and not leave it up to the teachers. The teachers are doing their job, we need everybody to equally take their part, and learn and teach the kids themselves," Phillips said.
Roberts, a current member of the Woonsocket School Committee, also took the question. He said it's important to make sure Woonsocket kids get the same access to education as those in suburban communities. He noted pencils are a big budget item for Woonsocket schools, while Barrington schools are budgeting for Ipads for their students. Making he state funding formula fair is one of his goals, he said, as is taking a look at unfunded mandates, including special education, which drains the school system's ability to serve gifted students. "Honors and AP classes will always get the ax, before special ed, because it's protected, so there needs to be a way to strike a better balance here, Roberts said.
Roberts also noted the importance of parents' role in education. "If you can't get your kid to school, or the kid misses 80 days, there needs to be a punishment."
Regarding new standards, Roberts said he favors the new Common Core standards. "I think the challenge is not that we're doing new standards, it's that the funding is not there to support the teachers in accomplishing that."
Donoyan asked Baldelli-Hunt what her plans are to make the state's funding formula more equitable for the city. Baldelli-Hunt said she is working to organize northern RI legislators to demand the formula be fully funded. "Most of the municipalities that are struggling and on the brink of bankruptcy across the state are also municipalities that are under-funded," she said.
Baldelli-Hunt said a united Northern RI delegation could ask for full funding of the state formula in exchange for their support during the vote for leadership of the General Assembly. "If we come together prior to January when we have a vote for leadership in the state of RI, and we go united as a group..." she said, they can win full funding for underfunded cities and towns.
Baldelli-Hunt also suggested finding a way to turn Barry Field into a revenue generator to fuel sports and music programs continually in jeopardy of being cut during lean times.
Donoyan directed the same questions (views on education and the funding formula) to Brien.
"I agree that there has been somewhat of a devolved sense of the importance of education," Brien said, "It really does begin at home, that's true."
Brien said there's been a growing divide between the urban and suburban communities in the General Assembly, with the urban areas on the losing end.
However, he said, just advancing state aid as the formula requires won't fix everything. "We're still stuck with the same problems," Brien said, "We need to change the formula to help a district like Wooonsocket that has substantial challenges with special education, with a large, advanced number of free breakfast, free lunch programs and also with federal housing that doesn't count as Section 8 when it comes to the calculation of the funds going into the school district."
You need to look at the formula as a whole and say how can you fix the formula for the urbans, even though you know that the suburbans are going to put up a fight over this. But that's when you form partnerships like Rep. Baldelli-Hunt has said."
Roberts and Phillips also debated during an Oct. 16 event sponsored by MyWoonsocket.com and WNRI.
Audio of that evening is posted on MyWoonsocket.com as well.