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LETTERS
Where’s expertise, long-range vision?

To the Editor:

I have been following very closely the proposals being discussed to close one of the three Warwick high schools to accommodate our junior high school students in an effort to reduce spending to meet budget constraints. This, as I am sure many of you know, comes on the heels of the closing of several elementary schools to meet the same budget constraints and reduced student population.

This whole idea deeply concerns me and it should concern all Warwick residents and taxpayers as well. I have attended school committee meetings and read many letters to the editor where valid concerns similar to my own have been expressed. However, I have not heard anyone speak about the real issue at hand with the exception of Councilwoman Donna Travis at a recent school committee meeting. During the public comment session two minutes was allowed per person to address this and other very important matters.

The problem that I see is twofold and Councilwoman Travis made reference to one concern that is the fact that a group of unqualified committee members have been chosen and given the task of studying and developing a plan based upon a very shortsighted directive. That is to focus on closing two junior high schools and reassigning those students to what will be a “super junior high school” facility. The members of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee do not, individually or collectively, have the expertise to make this decision nor have they done their due diligence in researching and analyzing the ramifications. This is a decision that will ultimately affect all our students. This lack of knowledge and expertise is very evident in comments made by committee members when they speak about how they have studied and visited the facilities and are looking out to a long-term two-year plan. This brings me to my second and most important concern. Two years is at best a short-term plan; we are talking about decisions that should be considering a 30- to 40-year plan with a five-year implementation strategy along with short- and moderate-term goals.

The reality of the situation is that we are all being very shortsighted in not taking this opportunity to truly look at and develop a realistic long-term strategic facilities plan with the aid of outside professional experts.

Our educational facilities in the city of Warwick are very old and outdated; simply taking a Band-Aid approach to this issue is not enough. Toll Gate is our newest school and it is 40 years old. This problem is not unique to Warwick; the entire country is facing the fact that school facilities are old and run down, our elderly population will continue to outnumber our younger population, which ultimately will lead to a decline in student population. The only difference is that other cities and states are working from a long-term plan that was developed with a great deal of foresight.

We as a city should be looking at this trend and relying on hired professionals to study not only our school facilities, but the demographics and all outside parameters associated with change of this magnitude. We should be looking at what other cities and states are doing to meet these very same issues.

I can tell you from firsthand experience as a 60-year resident of Warwick, with four children having gone through the system and one still in the system, as a 14-year employee of the city of Warwick, and a six-year employee of the Warwick School Department, along with my business association with CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools), that other cities in other states in New England have taken the approach of hiring outside professionals to develop a long-term strategic plan. This plan is then implemented to downsize or right-size the district’s school and municipal facilities to not only save money but to build new or retrofit facilities to reflect high performance school facility standards. These are facilities that use greatly reduced energy consumption and provide a learning environment that is statistically proven to increase student test scores, increase student, teacher attendance and performance. These are facilities that are utilized as learning tools for students and teachers and they pay for themselves with a relatively short return on investment. How can we ask our teachers and students to achieve higher standards when we are providing them with a substandard learning and teaching environment?

I have seen poor decisions in the past made by city of Warwick and Warwick School Department officials that simply looked at the lowest first cost approach (the Band-Aid fix). These poor decisions have, in the long term, cost us more money in repairs, operating cost, inefficiencies and poor performance than had they the foresight to seek outside help and do it right the first time.

This is another one of those rushed bad decisions for the city of Warwick!

I would ask that the Warwick School Committee and Facilities Planning Committee stop fooling themselves into thinking that they have the answers and can solve these issues on their own. I would also ask that all Warwick residents and taxpayers speak to this issue loudly and clearly. It is time for a sea change when it comes to our city’s schools. Approximately $160 million, or 60 percent of the city tax revenue, goes to our public school department. Let us take this opportunity to put our heads together, use these funds to reallocate existing assets and work toward a common goal that will put our schools back on top. This is a very big and very important decision. It is an issue that will require expert analysis, a bond referendum and a vote by the residents and taxpayers of the city of Warwick, not the recommendation of an ill-equipped committee.

We should not settle for anything less when it comes to our children’s education.

Robert Cerio

Warwick


Comments
15 comments on this item

All three high schools are at 50% capacity. All three junior highs are at 45% capacity. It's really that simple. Shockingly, paid outside consultants use the very same calculators as those on the long term planning committee.

Mr. Cerio your statement, "60 percent of the city tax revenue, goes to our public school department" is not close to being correct. In 2007 63.9% of property tax dollars was allocated to schools and 36.1% to the city budget. According to the 2014 proposed budget 54.4% of local property taxes is allocated to schools, while 45.6% allocated to the city budget.

Since 2007, 87% of new local tax dollars has been allocated to the city budget. The remaining 13% resulted mostly from federal stimulas dollars passing through the city to the school budget.

Bottom line, city spending continues to increase to record level each year while schools have reamained at 2008 levels.

Please copy and post this link into your browser for more information on the city and school budget.

Budget: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6P1sIPd4PTdTkI5WF9NM1pjVXM/edit?usp=sharing

Mr. Cerio,

While it is true that approximately $160 million goes towards the school dept. each year...only about 20% of that amount is left after salaries and benefits. It is not enough to sustain buildings that are MORE than half empty. They are unsustainable. As far as meetings and information goes...where have you been? The Committee has been meeting for the better part of two years..all meetings were open, all documentation regarding the meetings and the Committe findings are on the WPS website. If you had a plan to offer and were so concerned with the state of education in the City of Warwick, why did you wait until now to involve yourself? The City will not allot the WPS anymore money. The numbers are what they are....read the information on the website. Don't read some of it, don't just read meeting minutes, read it all....then maybe, just maybe you'll understand the reasoning behind the recommendation.

Bob, you are spot on. I actually support the current proposal, not because it displays long-term vision, but because it makes more sense than some other alternatives in the short term. I agree that we should nevertheless develop a true long-term plan that includes a vision for what our facilities will look like decades from now. I have said before, and continue to believe, that the long-term vision should center on a single junior/senior secondary complex located on the current Vets property and connected with Mickey Stevens and the Library as part of a central municipal education and recreation complex. I think that's the best way, over the long term, to create the flexibility we will need for changing populations and uses, and to maximize the all-season and all-purpose use of municipal resources. But I am willing to be convinced that some other long-term vision makes sense -- to date, no truly long-term vision of any type has been offered, and even if we reached consensus on a plan today, it would take moee than a decade to implement any real change. In the meantime, over the past decades, Warwick has been truly eclipsed by other Rhode Island and New England cities that have built and renewed their infrastructure in the same ways that we have ignored. I say all of this as someone who went through Warwick Public Schools myself, and has two children in Warwick Public Schools now, and as someone who is concerned that our tax burden will actually continue to go up more if we don't spend money on new infrastructure, due to lower property values and fewer families in the core residential tax base. --George.

You're right George. We work with what we have for now. It does defy logic, that a City with the amount of revenues and resources that we have, is so reluctant to change. The people who oppose this "Recommendation" think the WPS Administration is the reason the schools are a wreck, and lagging behind where other school systems are thriving...really? It's so much more than that, it's just too damning to think about the collective negativity in a system that is charged with educating our children. When a civilization is adverse to moving forward (in this case a City) then it is doomed to be mediocre.

This letter and comments are all valid points and concerns. No buildings are sustainable long term (at half or full capacity) under the current school budget and long term/joint planning by the City and schools needs to occur to obtain any significant long term improvements to the schools. While this plan addresses the current capacity issue and saves money that can go toward minimal improvements, it does not address the long term future of our City/schools and if implemented, will hopefully not inhibit future options. (I do have some concern that the implementation of this plan will tie up administration's time to focus on the long term planning and the use of an experienced consultant would be a wise investment) In an ideal world, the long range plan is developed first, then the phased action plans follow, but given the financial issues and capacity issues, it is understandable that the schools take an immediate action. The past year or so of developing and proposing short term options has created awareness and hopefully increased public support for longer term solutions. Whether or not you agree with the proposal, I hope the school committee, planning committee, administration, and residents will all acknowledge that this is a short term/immediate solution and should not replace long term planning that is long overdue.( I would suggest a name change of the proposal, it opens the committee up for criticism and implies that the long range plan is complete which hopefully is not the intent.)

Agreed Jennifer, we do need to acknowledge that this recommendation addresses the "Here and Now" and that it does not NEGATE the need for new facilities. The Committee is aware of that need, now if only the City Council and Mayor would acknowledge that need too. Also, I believe the School Committee should be advocating aggressively (not through threats or intimidation) for the City to step into the foray and hire an outside planner for the City's schools! School Department should not be on the hook for the facilities, since the City owns those facilities. I still don't understand why the School Department has had to pay for the Fire Code upgrades in the schools when those upgrades were mandated by the State of RI for the cities and towns across the state? Why wouldn't that responsibility go to the City of Warwick? Didn't the City of Warwick take care of the Fire Code upgrades on the other publicly held buildings in the City? The whole thing is a boondoggle. We need to address the secondary schools now and, right now they are more than half empty and are not getting any better.

Thanks for all your hard work on the committee! A well informed and engaged public is key to long term change and the work of the committee has sparked good debate and thoughtful thinking about the future of the schools. Hopefully those discussions will continue and expand beyond the immediate needs and engage the City in a constructive, collaborative effort to honestly assess the current facility condition/needs and address the future of the schools. An adversarial relationship between the schools and City does not serve the public well and this area is appropriate and well suited to a new spirit of cooperation.

@jackiemama63:

In 2006 the School Committee developed a plan whereby $25 million in bonds would be borrowed and $5 million spent each year for 5 years to make all fire code and other capital improvements (roofs, boilers, locker rooms, auditorium) in schools throughout the district. At the time I believe a large percentage of every dollar spent by Warwick would be matched with state funds, making the repairs cheaper for the city, provided the borrowing and projects were completed by specific dates. That never happened.

During the 2006 election Warwick voters overwhelming approved of the borrowing. With the plans in place and the first phase of the construction projects ready to go to bid, the Mayor suddenly without warning suspended all future borrowing as a result of a serious financial crisis developing in the city. You may not recall this but during this time Warwick's bond rating was under pressure for a down grade from rating agencies because of the large liabilities on the books.

The Mayor could not guarantee that the city could pay the principal and interest on any new borrowing. So what did he do? He simply suspended it without any regard or plan focusing on the long term infra-structure repairs needed in the schools. That in my opinion is very poor leadership and if you recall resulted in one controversy over the failing Pilgrim roof back in 2007.

During that same time period retiree benefit legacy costs continued to explode and new local property taxes and car taxes continued to increase to pay for these costs and to make up for the cut in state aid to the city budget. It’s amazing that during 2008 and on, with the stock market crash and Warwick citizen's disposal income being reduced, requiring everyone to cut back, that city spending continued to grow to record levels each year even with the cut in state aid.

Local tax dollars to support city budget:

2008 - $67,056,675

2009 - $76,149,571

2010 - $78,525,638

2011 - $79,566,667

2012 - $93,836,460 ($14.3 million increase from previous year)

2013 - $96,383,368 (projected)

2014 - $99,568,368 (Mayor proposed budget)

Local tax dollars to support school budget:

2008 - $118,064,827

2009 - $118,064,827

2010 - $123,968,468 (federal stimulus dollars)

2011 - $125,010,374 (federal stimulus dollars)

2012 - $118,171,303

2013 - $118,644,632 (projected)

2014 - $118,644,632 (Mayor proposed budget)

What the Mayor and the City Council did was simply raise local taxes to not only offset the state cuts but to allow for increased city spending. From 2004 through 2012 the state reduced aid to Warwick by $15 million; however local property taxes were increased by $52 million, over three times the cuts.

Over that same period of time local tax dollars to the school department was cut. For example in the 2012 fiscal year alone, $14.3 million more in local revenue was all allocated to the city budget while $6.8 million or 5% of the school budget was cut. The Mayor and the council took the $6.8 million and allocated it to the city budget. If the school budget was simply level funded over the past three years the schools would have had over $20 million to make the fire safety and other capital improvement repairs without borrowing a dime.

But what did we hear every year from the Mayor and the city council leadership at budget time when the School Committee submitted a budget requesting more funds: "School spending is out of control". The strategy of the Mayor and some council members was to create this impression to hide the fact that in reality city spending was out of control and they did not want to tackle the elephant in the room associated with making reforms to control city employee legacy cost escalations.

The bottom line as you have alluded to is that a sustainable long term plan to meet the educational needs of our children is needed. That will require millions of dollars in investment by city leaders in the school system.

Unfortunately the current city leaders will never think long term and develop this plan because to do so will require major reforms by them to control spending associated with retired employee benefits. When over 50 cents of every new tax dollar allocated to the city budget over the last ten years, pays for pension and free lifetime healthcare for retired employees and less than 6 cents of every new dollar is allocated to non-personnel related city expenses, something needs to change.

It's time to elect new leadership in Warwick. I won't hold my breath on that to happen anytime soon.

Thank you Bob! You have reinforced what it is that needs to be done. Unfortunately, people don't look beyond their own noses, and do not involve themselves until it's too late. The Committee and the School Department has to work with what they have, and keeping two outdated buildings (Gorton and Aldrich) open while each of them are at 40-45% capacity is ludicrous. They are "Money Pits" and the three high schools are not much better. They are also between 40-45% capacity. It is the desire of the Committee to see improvements made in every area. I won't restate what I have stated before. There is no money forthcoming, and we have put off the inevitable for over 5 years. Now is the time. Regarding 2006, the School Department/School Committee was also locked in a protracted contract dispute with the WTU, at that time, I think many people were sidetracked with that nonsense (it makes good theater) and were ignorant of the looming problem of city spending and it's long repercussions. Heck, I remember knocking on your door (we are neighbors) and asking about college reference letters because the teachers were not writing them. It was resolved, as you know, in the Fall of 2006 and the rest is history.

Well, the past has a way of biting folks in the rear-end, our rear-end is being bitten right now. Consolidation isn't the very best answer in a perfect world..but it is the only answer we have right now. I don't know if it was on here or another comment in another area that I said this...but...It is obvious that Warwick is reluctant to change at all...and unless the City (people of the City) are willing to make changes, HUGE changes, then the City is doomed to mediocrity.

"...unless the City (people of the City) are willing to make changes, HUGE changes, then the City is doomed to mediocrity." Truer words were never spoken. However, I would refer all posters to the historic voting habits of the RI electorate and their willingness to embrace "HUGE changes".

Thank you Bob, I was aware of the some of the issues but certainly not in that detail. Your perspective is insightful and informative, as always. I fully support City funded long term solutions for the school infrastructure and while it might not be on the near horizon, I still retain hope for the future. In the meantime, conversations such as these, should continue and the current proposal can serve to create much more awareness of these issues. I have been part of major changes in the healthcare delivery system and its infrastructure (and some failed attempts) that involved union, board/management, physician, City of Providence, state, and federal collaboration/approval and while it may be a lengthy process, and take multiple attempts, it is possible. A story needs to be told, how we got here is a very important perspective but my emphasis on long range vision/planning (and my role in healthcare changes) relates to the rest of he story... providing detailed analysis of where we actually are, how it compares to other local/national districts and current standards, the impact on the entire school system and City, what we believe is appropriate and attainable/sustainable for the future, and what will happen if the current situation continues, are the chapters that need to be added to serve as a foundation for gaining the support for change. Forgive my ignorance if this has been done in the past and failed but even if it has, it's time to try again....and again.

Jackie & Jennifer: I do not share the confidence that you both have that our current city leaders have the capability or the willingness to make the long range plans needed to properly address Warwick educational, facility and budgetary needs for our students and the citywide services for all citizens. This really isn't rocket science.

In 2006 in my final meeting as Chairman of the School Committee I addressed many of these issues and laid out my thoughts on what needed to be accomplished to tackle these challenges. Many of my predictions came true and sadly we are still facing some of the same issues 7 years later because the leaders in the city didn't care to address them.

If you get a chance please read a copy of what I said. The situation now is worse. Keep up the good work. At least you and your committee have taken the time and collected the data and analyzed a thoughtful approach to tackle the school consolidation issue. This isn't going to be easy but its needs to occur.

You should both consider running for office in the future. Warwick needs good people like you with fresh ideas looking to the future.

Copy and paste this link into your browser:

http://warwickonline.com/stories/Op-ed-Prospective-on-the-Warwick-School-Department,25042?content_source=archive&search_filter=cushman+chairman&town_id=1&sub_type=stories

Thank you Bob...for the excellent information, your time in public service and your advice.

Yes, Bob, thank you! And let's all take s close look/follow developments in Pawtucket, similar infrastructure and City issues but a more proactive approach to solutions...

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