Arriving at West Warwick High School 40 minutes early on June 5, I was able to see the lions and tigers and bears growling and gnashing their teeth; and the clowns practicing their buffoonery at the three ring circus that was the West Warwick Town Council meeting. Part of the buffoonery being several supporters of the town council passing out lists containing the salaries of all the employees of the school department.
Many would say that all council meetings in West Warwick fall under the category of circus-like entertainment but this one in particular had the extra feeling from the outset as members of the high school band program jammed in the corridors while cheerleaders and athletes performed feats in the parking lot.
What prompted this performance was the school committee slashing $1 million dollars from its budget and in effect ending school sports and afterschool programs. This action was necessitated when the town council cut five percent from the school budget. Previously in 2010, the council tried to do the same thing but was voted down by the residents.
For the past two years, the council has been “willfully underfunding,” the school department, depriving students and educators of the tools they need to succeed, in a court ruling by Superior Court Judge Rubine. In that time period, the town council created an escrow account that now holds $2.8 million dollars with no specific purpose; the money is sitting there while school sports are on the line and music and art programs are about to be cut.
In the meantime, it appears as if the teachers will not even be paid as the well has run dry and the council will not direct the town finance director to release the money to the school account. Sean Doyle, President of the West Warwick Teachers’ Alliance, has indicated the teachers will file a suit with the state Department of Labor and Training to force payment.
“Padula would rather pay fines than teachers,” stated Doyle.
That brings us back to Tuesday night’s meeting. Once the meeting was called to order at 7:13, Council President Padula launched into a prayer asking for help to solve the crisis facing them. The council then sat down before realizing they had to perform the “Pledge of Allegiance.” After finishing the pledge, George Landrie, a Warwick teacher and skilled musician launched into a stirring rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” highlighting just what the children of West Warwick would be losing if the town council persisted in preventing the money from reverting back to the school committee.
Tact not being one of Mr. Padula’s greatest assets, his first comment to the assembled crowd alerted them to the fact that they weren’t on the agenda. hearing the wave of dissent well up quickly, he then let them know that after some perfunctory items on the agenda, he’d give everyone a chance to be heard. Before allowing anyone to be heard, however, Mr. Padula read a prepared statement in which he stumbled several times, had a very difficult time pronouncing the word “scholastic,” and ended up claiming that he was nervous.
Anyone who knows Angelo Padula though, knows he’s not the jittery type and his claim of being nervous rang seriously disingenuous. If anything, the town council president’s inability to read his own statement just highlights the need for more money being spent on education. During his tirade, he was never nervous about bashing the school committee or teachers’ union and his disdain for the assembled constituency rose to the surface several occasions as he referred to the audience multiple times as “You people.” Several people in the crowd took exception to the characterization and shouted back, “You people?” and “Who are you calling you people?” Padula’s response was to threaten shutting down the meeting altogether.
Once he did allow residents to take to the microphones, the first person to speak, Jessica Ann Anderson, accused the council of “Using my kids as pawns.” She also scolded the members sitting on the stage, telling them they set a poor example for the students, not accepting blame for anything themselves and instead pointing the finger at the teachers and the school committee. Someone near me made the comment, “What do you expect from a convicted felon?” Obviously referring to Mr. Padula’s prison record. Shortly thereafter a shouting match began between a member of the audience and the council members and Mrs. Anderson once again scolded the elected officials by asking them to remain civil because there were children watching.
No one could keep complete track of all the side conversations and comments being exchanged but shortly thereafter, Councilwoman Filomena Gustafson made an arguably obscene gesture to the audience that was caught on tape by several local television stations, including WJAR.
Padula tried to justify the gesture by saying she was threatened by someone in the audience. However, the council was onstage, away from the crowd and there were several police officers on scene to prevent anything like that happening. The next day, Gustafson reportedly told Brian Crandall at Channel 10 news that the gesture only meant, “to hell with you.”
That, coupled with Town Solicitor Timothy Williamson’s question later that evening, “If the school committee hadn’t cut sports, how many of you would be here tonight?” seem to show a particular propensity for the council wanting to operate in the shadows without the harsh spotlights shining on what they may be doing.
In that vein, the council wanted to hold a joint meeting with the school committee prior to Tuesday night’s meeting but was rebuffed by the School Committee Chairman, Jim Williamson, stating that the earliest they could all meet would be on Wednesday. However, Mr. Padula corralled his council members and his allies on the school committee into meeting Monday, June 4 at the west Warwick Senior Center with no prior announcement and only posted an agenda seconds before the meeting. this meeting will more than likely result in complaints of violations of the open meetings law against both the council and the school committee.
So, with an obvious contempt for their constituents, an inability to compromise and the all too ready position to point fingers first before proactively approaching problems, the town of West Warwick faces not only a deficit in its finances but in character of the town’s leadership.