NORTH KINGSTOWN – Ahead of the upcoming general election, the North Kingstown School District continued its long-established tradition of hosting Candidates Day, a forum for high school students to ask questions of candidates running for local, state and national office. While the district traditionally holds the forum in the high school auditorium, this year’s event was pre-recorded and done virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings.
The Candidates Day forum was overseen by Lawrence Verria, chair of the social studies department at the high school, with the help of students from the Democracy Program. Questions were selected from student submissions.
Every opposed candidate on the North Kingstown ballot received an invitation to the forum.
However, the Candidates Day forum became a point of contention earlier this month, when concerns were raised about an unaffiliated group of students who formed a political action committee (PAC). The independent group of high school students, called “NKStudents4Candidates,” endorsed several candidates for town council and school committee, all Democrats. However, concerns were raised about the group — including a campaign finance violation and improper use of the school district’s mascot on campaign materials, among others. While NKStudents4Candidates had no part in organizing Candidates Day and were not connected to the school district, some North Kingstown Republican candidates stated ahead of time that the issues cast a negative light on the forum and therefore they would not be participating.
Candidates in attendance during last Thursday’s virtual forum included those running for school committee, town council, state Senate and even for national office.
Town council candidates were asked questions regarding additional funding for schools, police reform, solar energy farms, plans for town assets and more.
In the first segment of the forum, candidate Kevin Maloney (I), a current member of the town council, addressed the NKStudents4Candidates issue, lamenting the process by which they reached their endorsements and the fact that the event would be more heavily geared towards the Democratic candidates’ positions, due to no Republican candidates for town council attending. He added that he was the only town council candidate participating in the forum who was not endorsed by the student group.
“I do want to applaud the interest in politics that the NKStudents4Candidates have demonstrated,” he said. “However, I would say I wish that they had undergone a more open approach in choosing candidates by reaching out to all of the candidates, interviewing them, listening to rebuttals, before making endorsements.”
The first question posed was whether candidates would be open to additional funding for safe school reopenings, if it was needed. Earlier this year, after approving the school department’s budget, the town council approved an additional $500,000 for the creation of a Distance Learning Academy in order to accommodate elementary students who would be learning from home.
Maloney said he would be in favor of additional funding, if necessary.
“The council was unanimous in the agreement to approve the $500,000 COVID relief funding,” he said. “My colleagues chose to distribute these funds with four equal payments over the entire year and were requesting reports to see how the money was being spent.”
“I do feel we’re going to need more funding and I would certainly be up to providing some funds,” he added.
Town council candidate Kimberly Page (D), the former chair of the school committee, also said she would be in favor of additional funding, if necessary, though said it would require assistance from the federal and state level.
“There is a limited amount of money in the state, and we need more congressional funding for this,” she said.
Newcomer Jack Kliever (D), during a separate town council candidate segment, also said he would support additional funding.
“I hope we can do that with existing funds, I think temporary measures make sense, because the pandemic is going to be temporary,” he said.
Katherine Anderson (D), another newcomer, also agreed, adding that the town council could allocate more funds from its existing fund balance of more than $10 million.
“If there are indeed cuts to the federal and state aid, as we anticipate there might be, I do support working with the school committee, with our school department, to determine what additional funds might be needed,” she said.
Current council president Greg Mancini (D), who is running for reelection, said that it was a “very complex question,” adding that any actions had to be done in consideration of the tax rate and potential deficits, as well as state and federal aid. However, he went on to say that the town’s fund balance could be tapped into, if further funding was required.
“If need be, we will have to tap into that to make sure we have a safe school system and that our kids are protected,” he said.
Town council candidate and newcomer Brad Artery (D) said that he had no higher priority than the school system, going on to say that, if elected, his number one goal on the council would be to keep schools safe and running.
Students also asked candidates whether they would support police reform and, more specifically, if they support cutting police budgets.
Artery called the concept of “defunding the police” very “shortsighted and reactive,” adding that he did not support it. However, he said that “reform” was more a question of how a police department assesses and trains its staff in regards to systemic bias or racism.
He said he might support police reform if the town finds that “there are training opportunities and systemic challenges in our department.”
Mancini also said that “reform and cutting the budget are two different things,” adding that reform was a “complex issue that is more focused on urban areas.” However, like all departments, the police budget would be looked into every year.
He also commended the North Kingstown Police Department for attending recent Black Lives Matter protests in town, as well as working with related groups.
“They have also engaged with many groups and have gone to protests to make sure everyone was protesting peacefully, my hat’s off to them,” he said.
Kliever, a former Newport police officer, said that he favored reform but not budget cuts.
“I have been pleased with the attitude that the NKPD has shown in reaching out to communities that are concerned about the police, about the way police behave,” he said.
Anderson, a social worker who regularly works firsthand with police for mental health emergencies, said she applauded NKPD for pursuing a grant to have clinicians work them to improve outcomes and safety “for community members and officers alike.” She also commended officers for attending the recent protests.
She said that the better question would be how to make sure resources are used appropriately so that community members are safe, rather than focusing on budget cuts.
Page also referenced the grant that would help supply more social workers to go on police calls.
“I would like to look at more grants and more ways to provide mental health workers and social workers to go with the police,” she said. “I wouldn’t be calling for any sort of cutting support.”
Maloney said he would support reform, though added that he would want to meet with individuals who have claimed to have been violated by the police department before making any decisions, and determine how often such incidents occur within the town. He also said he wouldn’t support cutting department budgets.
“I would still need to have some confidence that the problems exist here,” he said. “Over the past eight years, I’ve honestly heard mostly positive things about the department, with maybe one exception.”
Maloney said he would then try to set up a working group made up of reform supporters, law enforcement and town officials.
Candidates were also asked if they supported building large-scale solar energy farms in North Kingstown.
“I do support larger solar energy farms in North Kingstown, when adequately placed,” Maloney said, adding that he was part of the council that restricted large, industrial-type farms in residential zones. “To change zoning where our taxpayers live, and to replace the typically wooded surrounding with these steel structures, is unfair.”
Page said she supported renewable energy, though added that it needed to be balanced with the residential and rural nature of the town.
“The large solar farms may not be the way to go about doing that,” she said.
Kliever said that industrial level solar was “becoming cost effective,” which he said was a good thing, though said that the town shouldn’t be cutting down trees and existing greenery for large-scale solar farms.
Anderson echoed Kliever, saying that she would not support an initiative that would involve deforestation or clear-cutting, though she said the town government should look into innovative ways to implement solar and other alternative energy.
“Certainly I’m in favor of clean energy but I want to protect and preserve our environment as well,” she said.
Mancini said he was staunchly against large-scale solar farms, though said he supported other means of using alternative energy.
“I think clearcutting of large swaths of land that are otherwise environmental is a huge mistake,” he said. “I think it takes away from the rural character of our community.”
Artery said it would depend on where the solar farms are located, and the size of the farms, though said he supported renewable energy.
“The rural character of our community matters, I certainly want to preserve that,” he said.
Students then asked town council candidates what their plans were for the “older buildings in Wickford,” particularly the currently vacant Town Hall building and the former Wickford Elementary School, also currently out-of-use. North Kingstown residents approved a $5 million bond referendum for the restoration of the Town Hall building and the return of council chambers, and the council also recently approved a proposal for a developer to transform Wickford El into condominiums.
While both projects have begun moving forward, with plans for the both currently being drawn up, all the candidates said they would prioritize completion.
“It’s embarrassing to me as a citizen that [the Town Hall] is uninhabitable,” Artery said. “I do hold previous town councils responsible for not funding that.”
Mancini also said that, to have Wickford El vacant for 15 years and Town Hall vacant for five, was a “complete dereliction of duty.”
“I came in two years ago, I started moving the ball forward on both of those, but it takes time,” he said. “The highest priority for us is to get town hall renovated and move forward with the sale of Wickford Elementary School so it is a working asset to the community.”
Kliever said that the town was also making progress on other projects, including Wickford El and the Town Hall, as well as the sale of the former library, however added that he was concerned about buildings like the old Wilson’s store, which he said “seems to be in limbo.”
Anderson said that North Kingstown needed a Town Hall that was “inhabitable and functioning and inviting and represents our community.”
“That is a town asset that was allowed to decay and depreciate for 15 years,” she said. “I think the town council can no longer punt this issue.”
In regard to the Town Hall building and the Wickford El sale, Page said it was “time to move ahead.”
“I’m ready to go,” she said of the Wickford El sale and development proposal. “If we have an architect, let’s make sure we get this job done because we’ve been languishing around.”
And Maloney said that, while he thought $5 million was too expensive for the renovation of the Town Hall building, the “direction’s already been set.” (The council approved the plans before Maloney was reappointed to the council.)
“I personally think $5 million for the town council chambers is way too much but the direction’s already been set,” he said.
Finally, candidates were asked how they would use a hypothetical $1 million grant.
Maloney said that, while it wouldn’t be enough to cover the costs, he would prioritize either putting the utility poles along Post Road underground or relocating them to the back properties, which he said would clean up the look and spur economic growth in the area.
Page said she would look for proposals from residents as to how the money should be spent, whether it’s on building repairs, schools or businesses.
Kliever also said that $1 million “wasn’t what it used to be,” though added that he would use the funds on rehabilitating the old town meeting house.
Envisioning a scenario where all basic needs are met, Anderson said she would use the grant to help prepare and plan for climate change, such as focusing on parking lots, residential homes, roads and infrastructure.
Artery said that he would invest further in the education system, which drives better outcomes in a community.
And Mancini said that, because it would be a one-time grant, he would use it on one-time expenses, with a focus on education.
Along with candidates for town council, state and federal office, contenders for the North Kingstown School Committee also answered questions from students. Questions touched on funding for the arts program at the high school, the reopening plan, COVID-19 testing and long term plans, among other topics.
When asked if he supported funding for the arts program at the high school and whether he would support increasing financial support for the theater department, current vice-chair of the school committee Robert Jones (R) said that he first ran for election in 2012 because of the cuts made to the school department’s co-curricular and athletic programs, which he supported.
“Since 2016, we’ve put over $300,000 into fine arts capital and included in this most current bond a $20,000 request to support it,” he said.
He also said that he supported making the arts program an enterprise fund, which would provide more funding and transparency.
Current school committee member Jennifer Hoskins (D), who is also seeking reelection, said that she was also a big supporter of the arts program.
“For the theater program, we have also discussed at one of the meetings that maybe at some point looking at it as an enterprise fund, and giving them a budget to start with,” she said.
Another current member seeking reelection, Jacob Mather (D), echoed Jones and Hoskins in his support for the arts program at North Kingstown.
“It’s incredible, it’s inspiring, and I highly support that, and I support additional funding where necessary to continue it,” he said.
Newcomer Jennifer Lima (D) said she was a “strong proponent of funding the music and arts program in North Kingstown,” adding that it was “insane” the theater department didn’t have it’s own budget.
“I’m definitely all in for increasing financial support for the theater productions,” she continued.
Candidates were also asked if they supported the school administration’s decision to send high school students back to in-person learning on alternating A/B days of the week, with half of the students attending class in-person on one day and the other half on the second day.
Lima said that it was necessary to split in-person days in order to keep students safe, while also meeting the departments of health and education’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“I believe then, and I still do now, that the decision to split the high school in-person attendance in half was the right way to go,” she said.
Mather, a vocal proponent of full distance learning, said that he felt “very strongly” that a “full in-person return to school would have been reckless and dangerous and financially irresponsible.”
Hoskins said that she fully supported the administration’s decision to send high school students back on alternating days, especially in light of state and federal guidelines.
“With the number of students that attend the high school, the only safe way to open any in-person was to do it staggered with an A/B day schedule,” she said.
Jones said that, while the majority of the committee would have preferred a full, in-person return to schools, he said that the plan was formulated to accommodate high school students as best they could, considering state guidelines around safety.
Candidates were also asked if they would support mandated COVID-19 tests for high school students, as the University of Rhode Island (URI) recently announced they would be doing.
However, Jones pointed out that URI was only planning for a two-week window of testing due to a recent spike. Jones teaches at Bryant University, which has a sustained testing plan in place, and he said was “very expensive.”
The North Kingstown School District has also only had three schools with COVID-19 positive cases, and all of them have been under five cases. Due to the low amount of cases, and the high costs of sustained testing, Jones said he would not be in favor of implementing regular testing.
“I would not incur that cost,” he said. “I would keep encouraging the protocols we have, and keep going.”
Hoskins agreed with Jones, adding that the only way sustained testing could be afforded would be through funding from the state.
Mather said that, while he supported as much testing as possible, the issue came down to availability, costs and resources.
Lima said that, while she would support free testing to staff and students on a regular basis, she wasn’t sure about mandating that all students get tested.
“But we could certainly urge parents to opt in, for the good of the community,” she said.
Students also asked whether the new high school sports complex, which was funded through a multi-million dollar bond approved by residents, would be open to students and community members.
The new track and field complex was recently completed, however, due to COVID-19 restrictions, it has not been made available to the community fully.
Lima said that while the complex has been booked up, due to COVID-19 scheduling issues, making it available to community members in the near future was a priority.
“I think it needs to be accessible to students and community members as much as possible,” she said.
Mather said he supported using the facility to its fullest potential, but added that the complex was just completed, and that there were still COVID-19 restrictions in place that needed to be abided.
Hoskins also said that part of the reason the complex was being limited was because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I support the administration in what they’re doing to keep the social distancing aspect and the students and community safe as much as possible,” she said.
And Jones said that, while the committee fully supported transitioning back to the complex being open for public use, there were still state safety guidelines in place that the town had to adhere to.
“The committee and I fully supported transitioning at some point to where it was before, where it’s open to the public use,” he said. “Remember, these restrictions are not ours, they’re the state’s, for good safety reasons.”
Candidates were also asked about long term plans to accommodate a growing student population in North Kingstown, particularly elementary students.
However, Jones said that elementary enrollment was not an issue currently, with most schools at around 80 percent capacity.
“The right question is what are we doing to be good stewards to make sure that, 20 or 30 years from now, that our infrastructure is postured to support students then,” he said, adding that he presented such a proposal at last week’s school committee meeting.
Hoskins agreed with Jones that elementary capacity wasn’t necessarily the issue, adding that overall infrastructure plans had to be in place.
“We need to have a plan so that, 20 or 30 years from now, we have set up the next committees coming up with schools that aren’t falling apart,” she said.
Mather said improvements to buildings, or even investments in new buildings, had to be made in the next few years.
“My hope is that with a growing population, we’ll have a higher tax base, and more appropriated funds to our schools and perhaps making the capital improvements to make this possible,” he said.
Lima said that the school district’s long term infrastructure plan needed to be reviewed, particularly Wickford Middle School, which was built in the 1930s.
“Diving into reviewing the district needs as a whole, accommodating the growing elementary school population will be incorporated into that,” she said.
All candidates thanked the students and school administration for hosting the Candidates Day forum. The general election will take place on Nov. 3.
To view the full Candidates Day forum, visit the North Kingstown High School website.