Stuck in neutral

Failure to consolidate could end up costing system $23M, says D’Agostino


Warwick schools are stuck in neutral, and some fear unless action is taken soon to address declining enrollment with the consolidation of operations – especially secondary schools – millions will be spent needlessly and opportunities such as universal all-day kindergarten will be postponed.

Time is working against the system.

Last month, the department notified 20 teachers they would be laid off – the maximum allowable under contract – by the next academic year. But with no long-range plan, the system can only respond to short-term needs.

Vets High needs a new roof costing an estimated $2.2 million, and Gorton and Aldrich junior high schools are required to meet fire code regulations, an action that has already been delayed, by 2015 at a cost of more than $2 million. Yet the future of the buildings is uncertain.

If those improvements were made using bonds, as the committee has approved, and the committee then closes those schools, the district would be faced with paying the full balance on the debt immediately.

It’s not that there haven’t been plans.

Two years ago, a short-term facilities committee recommended closure of Gorton. The School Committee balked. They wanted additional study with a more comprehensive look at the entire system.

A 15-member study committee including representatives from the public and the city administration went back to the drawing table. Unanimously, they recommended the closure of Gorton, Aldrich and Vets. The plan called for this to be the last year for Vets as a high school, with it re-opening in the fall of 2015 as a middle school. Gorton and Aldrich would close their doors in June of 2015, thereby consolidating the system from three junior and senior high schools to two of each. In addition, with a middle school model, sixth-graders would be housed in the same schools as seventh- and eighth-graders. This would open up the rooms for all-day kindergarten in the elementary schools.

Under pressure from students, parents and teachers, the committee tabled the plan and approved a resolution to retain a consultant to analyze enrollment projections and the system’s buildings – to give the committee an outside assessment.

Now, it appears, it will be another full year before a plan can be implemented.

Meanwhile, the district faces teacher contract talks – the current contract expires this August – and if it is to move ahead with a middle school model, thereby freeing rooms at the elementary level for full-day kindergarten, it needs to address middle school teacher certification.

In a recent interview, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the department is looking at different options for the next five years and that “the committee is working on recommendations.” Steps are being taken to implement full-day kindergarten in several schools – he didn’t name them – where there is sufficient space and the funding. This is considered by Jennifer Ahearn as a transitioning step to a goal she and other committee members would like to achieve.

But delaying consolidation, which D’Agostino says is inevitable and will act to improve the system, could be costly, forcing the system to make cuts into programs, thereby impairing the quality of education.

Committee Chair Bethany Furtado is in agreement.

“Every day lost is lost education for these kids,” she said. Furtado is frustrated, saying the department is caught in a “state of flux.”

“The big picture is that we need to progress and to continually move forward,” she said.

That’s not happening.

Further delays and more study, however, threaten to put the system in reverse.

D’Agostino itemizes the costs. He combines the costs of making improvements to schools that would be closed with the lost savings if they were closed, as was recommended but tabled, to come up with a total of $23 million over 10 years. That’s money, he reasons, that could be put into programs and implementing all-day kindergarten.

“We want every student to have the opportunity,” he says.

Yet he recognizes there are emotional ties to schools and closing them is a “bitter pill” for many. It’s a tough decision.

“If this was a business, some parts of the system would have been closed down years ago,” he says.

Mark Carruolo, the mayor’s chief of staff, sees it that way, too. Carruolo represented the administration on the study committee.

“What do you do?” he asks of the School Committee that has sidetracked school consolidation seemingly for the indefinite future. “Do you ask for more money [from the city] when there is the funds in the system by decreasing costs and taking those savings to reinvest in your future?”

Hiring an outside consultant, he says, won’t produce a different outcome.

“It doesn’t matter. The solution is the same,” he said.

But the delay could be costly in more than dollars. Carruolo sees the inaction as undermining confidence in Warwick schools and demoralizing teachers. They are concerns echoed by Furtado.

“Are you going to let everyone suffer? I don’t think so,” he says.

So, could the committee, which tabled a vote on consolidation and voted to bring in an outside consultant, bring the motion back to the table? Could it still act in time to close Gorton and Aldrich before needing to spend $2 million to meet fire code improvements in 2015? Could it close Vets as of June and commence renovations so it would re-open in the fall of 2015 as a middle school?

Might Warwick have all-day K by the fall of 2015, too?

More to the point, would the vote be different?

Ahearn, Eugene Nadeau and Karen Bachus favored going to an outside consultant. Furtado and Terri Medeiros favored moving ahead with the plan.

Ahearn expressed her frustration that Bachus, who heads the committee drafting the bid specifications for the consultant, hasn’t moved faster. A single meeting was held where Bachus refused to set a timetable and said the job will take as long as it needs to be completed. Under the best of circumstances, Ahearn doesn’t imagine the committee will have a report until this fall. Furtado thinks that’s the case as well. That moves school consolidation another academic year away at the least.

“I’m very upset about that. We need a timeline,” Ahearn said.

Ahearn concedes that the committee should have pushed for a vote, rather than tabling action, although it’s probable she wouldn’t have supported consolidation.

“At the end of the day, if we had closures, that wouldn’t improve learning in the buildings,” she says.

She doesn’t believe consolidation would save as much as D’Agostino estimates. She says the city should increase school appropriations.

“There’s no priority on education, even with the mayor,” she said.

She claims the mayor’s attitude is “to heck with the students. I’m taking care of my side of the street.” She said schools “are stuck with the leftovers” once the city side of the budget is satisfied. She said the 54.6 percent of the budget going to schools is less support than what schools get in other municipalities, which she put as high as 65 percent elsewhere.

Mayor Scott Avedisian attended the only meeting to draft the specifications for the consultant and sought to establish a deadline for an outcome. It was at that point Bachus said it was going to take as long as it took.

In an interview yesterday, the mayor said the school system is faced with a “crumbling infrastructure” of old schools. He doesn’t see a solution in simply fixing up old buildings, although at this point, building new ones doesn’t look to be an option.

Avedisian sees the system as having become “bogged down” and incapable of making decisions that would generate savings.

He offered some hope, however.

“If they do consolidation and quantify savings,” he said, “I would let them keep that savings.” Those are funds that could go into all-day K as well as building improvements.

Such a commitment would be subject to council approval, although the mayor could veto the council budget.

Ahearn reiterates that the emphasis needs to be learning, not buildings.

“We need to get student learning to a higher level,” she said. “We don’t have a good handle on that.”

Nadeau places much of the blame on the city administration.

“What they’re doing to the school department is outrageous,” he said of the city’s insistence that schools assume principal and interest costs of bonding for building improvements. The committee approved that action.

“We had no choice,” Nadeau counters.

By the same token, Nadeau is a proponent of all-day K and middle schools. As he sees it, those changes should be instituted over a period of time, with the middle schools being introduced at the existing three junior highs before any consolidation. All-day K would follow once classrooms at the elementary level have been freed.

“It may take three or four years,” he says.

But looking at where the system is today, and unless action is taken, it may take even longer.

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