Bob LaFazia, chairman and District 1 representative on the town’s School Committee, remembers a system wrought with dissension and concern when he first joined the political scene 20 years ago.
LaFazia, who is running unopposed for a sixth term this November, said parents were nervous that Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School was not performing up to standards, and he recalls murmurs of a charter school. Johnston High School was also on probation for accreditation issues
“We had elementary schools that were on one level,” LaFazia told the Sun Rise this week. “We had Ferri Middle School, that was on another level. Then we had the high school that was on another level, and all the levels were not interacting with each other. The kids from the elementary schools would go to the Ferri School and they would be on a different type of curriculum. All the curriculum was all different back then.”
Since then, LaFazia said the district was able to get its curriculum in line at all three levels and receive full accreditation status for JHS. LaFazia also pointed to all-day kindergarten for “building a strong foundation.”
It’s been a team effort between administration, School Committee, principals and teachers to steer the ship back on course. LaFazia said Superintendent of Schools Bernard DiLullo has been a significant asset to the town.
“It’s a tough job for him, and let me tell you something, I have a lot of respect for him because he’s even there on weekends,” LaFazia said. “Very fortunate that we have such an individual in place. A couple of weeks ago I had to go to the post office on a Sunday and where was his car? His car was at the administration office. The guy doesn’t sleep, basically. Even when he went out – he had a minor operation and he was going to be out for six weeks – he only took two weeks off. He said, ‘I’ve got to be back at work, I can’t be out six weeks.’”
LaFazia said the school reopening process in Johnston could be going a bit smoother, but teachers are being very cautious in returning. He said the district could face a shortage of both teachers and subs, but he said he doesn’t blame them for their apprehension.
“It’s like everything else with COVID-19, nobody ever exercised any type of plan in the past of thinking that something like this would ever, ever happen,” LaFazia said. “Nobody ever thought this would happen. It’s coming along. The only problem is the shortage of teachers, sometimes teachers call in sick because they’re afraid, they don’t know what their conditions are.”
LaFazia said responding to a shortage would be “very difficult” and potentially lead to virtual learning for some students.
“If teachers don’t show, we’ll probably have to go back to some type of a virtual learning like we did back in the beginning of the year,” LaFazia said. “Take care of those classes that the teachers are not in, and we don’t have subs, so that’s one way of looking at it. It’s very difficult to make these determinations because you don’t know what’s going to happen on a day-to-day basis.”
LaFazia is holding out hope that Johnston and other municipalities will receive some form of legislative relief to offset the budgetary impacts of out-of-district busing.
When Cranston High School West opened its technical program to ninth-graders a few years back, Johnston was caught unaware and already had its figures for the year set. LaFazia said it resulted in an $800,000 hit, sending the district “into pretty much a tailspin with our budget.”
The latest town audit showed a $2 million deficit for the district, and Johnston is looking for some legislative help from its local delegation in ameliorating future costs.
“We have a lot of these programs in our high schools, but the state states a child can go where they want whether we have the programs or not,” he said. “We’re trying to get some legislation passed, hopefully this coming year once they get back in session, to probably change that to help the cities and towns. Everybody’s taking a hit. I know Warwick took a hit, too. They had a lawsuit going on to try to get some changes there, but if we all work together, possibly we could get some change in the near future.”
The pandemic put the district’s efforts “on the back burner,” but LaFazia is wishing for the best.
“What are you going to do?” LaFazia told the Sun Rise. “It’s like being on the ocean and a storm is coming in and you’ve just got to ride it out. That’s all you can do. You just hope for the best.”
When asked how he’s approaching the campaign without an opponent, LaFazia said constituents know where to find him mostly every day. He said he tells them to call his business, and if they don’t have his contact info, the district can provide it.
He said one of his core mantras is, “Don’t make promises that you cannot keep.”
“You go out there, you try your hardest to keep everybody satisfied and when there’s a problem that comes about, you try to be like a moderator, sit in the middle of it and try to work something out with both sides that they’re comfortable with the final outcome,” LaFazia said. “Joe Rotella had an opponent a few years back. I walked with Joe quite a bit and we answered questions pertaining to the school department, and I’ve always been there.”