What two mothers started as a drive to save their neighborhood school from closing this academic year has evolved into a campaign to shelve the larger elementary school consolidation plan because of conflicting data and state efforts directed at addressing aging school buildings across Rhode Island.
“I’ve fallen in love with John Brown Francis [School],” said Liz Gambuto in a noisy Palazzo’s Pizza Thursday night. Around her and Mary Martin, gathered at tables of four and five, parents, teachers, friends and a smattering of elected officials ate pizza and drank beer and soda. There was no speaking program and no agenda – although from the T-shirts and the clipboard with a petition, it was clear there is a shared goal to keep JBF School in Governor Francis from being re-purposed as the city’s early childhood education center.
Under the consolidation plan approved by the School Committee in 2016, the current center at the Toll Gate Educational Complex would become part of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center. In addition, the department would close John Wickes and Randall Holden Schools as of June 2018.
That could change, based on a motion by School Committee member Eugene Nadeau, to postpone implementation of the consolidation plan for two years. The motion will be heard at tonight’s meeting at Toll Gate High School. Nadeau voted for the plan in 2016, but in the last couple of months the Rhode Island Department of Education has released the results of a comprehensive look at all school buildings, arriving at the conclusion that $2 billion would be needed to upgrade all buildings to top standards. The Jacobs report also includes an “aspirational” standard of 180 square feet of building space per student for new school construction projects.
“I’m troubled that so much is happening so quickly,” Nadeau said Monday, “especially this bond. I want to do one thing at a time and do it well.”
As for consolidation, Nadeau said, “I don’t want to see any more mistakes made so we can be pilloried by the public. I don’t want that to happen.” Nadeau said his concern is for the entire system and his motion is not limited to John Brown Francis School.
While favoring delaying consolidation until there is clarity of what the state wants, Nadeau wants to move ahead with a middle school system with sixth grade being moved to Veterans and Winman next fall.
The “aspirational” standard is what school administrators question is affordable or, for that matter desirable. It dramatically increases the classroom space projected as needed for a simultaneously declining school enrollment. According to the $250,000 SMMA (Symmes, Manini and McKee Associates of Cambridge) study that the school committee used to base its consolidation plan, after elementary school consolidation the system would have the capacity to accommodate 5,025 elementary students. Currently, the system has 4,579 elementary students, including 681 6th graders, down from 4,656 last year, according to district records.
According to NESDEC, New England School Development Council, for 2018-19 elementary enrollment is projected at 4,570 and 4,549 for 2019-20. That would appear to be close to what the department needs for capacity. However, the plan calls for moving sixth graders into middle school next fall. Without 6th grade, the NESDEC number for K-5 enrollment is 3,932 for 2018-19.
What throws a wrench into these calculations is the “aspirational” standard. When that is applied, the current capacity for elementary students drops to 3,624, which under the administration’s current consolidation plan would still put Warwick above the state recommendations, even if the 6th graders are moved out of the elementary schools as planned.
In the bigger picture, the aspirational standard dramatically increases the approximately $85 million in school upgrades the department has identified and was prepared to propose as a bond issue. That amount leaps to $117.7 million, an amount Ferrucci said the committee plans to present to the City Council on Nov. 29.
These added costs include $3.7 million to renovate and keep Randall Holden Elementary open (a figure arrived at by taking approximately 60 percent of the state’s $5.8 million estimate to repair the school, as Ferrucci explained last month has more accurately reflected actual costs of state projections) plus $30 million for the cost of constructing two new elementary schools that adhere to RIDE’s capacity standards and bring them within the state expectations for total square footage in the district.
However, from Ferrucci’s perspective, the issue is what the community is prepared to pay, although the state may be more willing to accept the plan and pay its share (about 35 percent for Warwick based on the current formula) if its aspirational standards are met.
“The real question I’m asking, and the question that will be posed in front of the City Council on Nov. 29 is, ‘What can the community afford?’ It’s as simple as that,” Ferrucci said in an interview on Monday.
What he means is that the community, starting with the council, will have to decide if the city can afford the additional costs to achieve aspirational capacity – which, simplified, means ensuring that elementary schools have dedicated auditoriums, cafeterias, science facilities and rooms for the arts as opposed to multi-use spaces like they currently utilize – or if the city can only afford to focus on their original $85 million bond plan to renovate the existing schools to get them up to acceptable condition, which would benefit the highest number of students.
Superintendent Philip Thornton views the situation as a matter of having too many schools and too few students. In addition, he said in an interview Friday that consolidation at the elementary level is linked to moving sixth graders to the city’s two junior high schools, which are slated to become middle schools next September. He said the savings generated by consolation would be used to expand class offerings for sixth graders.
Of the elementary schools in the system, Thornton said Randall Holden, followed by JBF, have the lowest enrollment.
Martin and Gambuto, mothers of second graders at JBF, initiated the drive to save the school in September. Martin said she found herself asking, “Does anyone want to try to do something?” It wasn’t long before a group started meeting Thursday nights at the Warwick Library. The group has grown to include parents from other schools and, according to Vanessa Carnevale and her husband, Paul Renehan, who have become coordinators of the campaign dubbed Operation Falcon, gained the endorsement of elected officials representing Governor Francis Farms.
School Committee member Karen Bachus and Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley were in attendance at Thursday’s meeting. Carnevale said the effort to save JBF has the backing of Senator Michael McCaffrey, Rep. Joseph McNamara and School Committee member Eugene Nadeau.
She said a letter detailing inconsistencies in the plan to re-purpose JBF, including the cost of building renovations and future student population, was emailed to Thornton about two weeks ago without response. The group has also asked all members of the School Committee and the mayor to join the cause.
Carnevale argues the consolidation plan is “the wrong plan at the wrong time” and the School Committee needs to do due diligence with further analysis before proceeding. Furthermore, she said the community should be involved. She believes “a lot of factual data” is missing from the current plan, especially population projections.
“A lot of young families are not being counted,” she said.
Carnevale has looked at the state report and recognizes the suggestion that districts consider consolidation of smaller neighborhood schools into new and fewer larger elementary schools. She’s not opposed to the concept and feels that should be explored before proceeding down the current path, especially if it’s going to mean greater state funding.
“I would like to see John Brown Francis stay open as a community school. The goal is to provide the best possible education,” she said.
When the committee voted for the consolidation of elementary schools in October 2016, the closure of Wickes and Holden were projected to save $2,244,900 and avoid the $15,371,730 total cost of renovating the two buildings. The sixth grade transition was projected to cost $1,770,000.
Carnevale acknowledged with the protracted teacher contract dispute there has been “a lot of strife” in the system. She feels there is distrust of the school administration and “parents don’t believe they have a voice in this.”
The group has not asked Thornton or members of the administration to attend their meetings.
Thornton did not recall receiving an email from Carnevale. He said he tries to respond to all emails posing questions.
Thornton noted development of the consolidation plan was a lengthy process involving numerous meetings and hearings over more than two years. The bottom line, he said, “we still have too many schools.”
As for the motion to reconsider the consolidation plan before the committee tonight, Thornton does not see the administration giving a presentation or recapping the reasoning for the school closures. He imagines that will be discussed by committee members and voted on.
As for the bond issue, Thornton acknowledges the aspiration standards set by RIDE push up the projected costs. He said that RIDE has asked Warwick to reconcile its projections. “They want us to push back.”
Ultimately, he said, the decision rests with the community on what it feels it can afford.