The City Council holds the key on whether voters will have the chance to decide in November whether $85 million should be spent over the next five years to address school building deficiencies. But unless the council acts quickly, they could force schools to delay a bond request for at least a year and maybe longer.
The critical date is the Feb. 1 deadline for the School Department to submit a Stage II plan to address school building deficiencies and/or build new schools, if that is the chosen path to be eligible for state funding this year.
Following the vote of the committee, the school administration drafted an $85 million proposal to repair deficiencies ranging from leaking roofs to aging, inefficient heating systems. Work needs to be done in all 22 Warwick schools, which average 64 years old. Work would not be done at Holden or Wickes, which will close at the end of this academic year, or Drum Rock, which will be used by the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center.
Yet, while the need to improve school buildings is not disputed, members of the City Council have questioned whether fixing up older buildings is throwing good money after bad. They question if the city would be better off closing some schools and building new ones.
That issue will surely be raised at a special City Council meeting Monday, Jan. 22 to consider the $85 million plan. Last year, the plan never reached the council floor as it lulled in the finance committee, where chairman Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur wanted to see a state study of school building deficiencies before taking action. That statewide assessment of school buildings – the Jacobs Report – identified $190 million in current Warwick school building deficiencies.
The state report serves as the basis for the governor’s task force plan calling for $500 million in state bonds, of which $250 million would be on the ballot this November. The state funds would augment local funding, which in Warwick’s case could amount to almost 50 percent of the cost of renovations. Assuming council approval of a city school bond and General Assembly approval of a state bond, both referenda would appear for voter consideration on the November ballot.
Ladouceur would like the Warwick plan to be a “blend” of upgrading old buildings and building a new school.
“I’m not giving my vote for $85 million unless there’s a blend. We’ve got to fix schools and we’ve got to build schools,” he said in an interview Sunday.
Ladouceur reasons a new school, whether a large elementary that would allow for the consolidation of smaller schools or a single middle or senior high school that would also mean consolidation would serve to reenergize the school system. He feels it would serve to attract young families to Warwick and stem the exodus of homeowners to communities such as East Greenwich and North Kingstown.
Ladouceur’s proposal is problematic if schools are to meet the Feb. 1 deadline.
To comply with Stage 2 requirements for consideration this year and meet the Feb. 1 deadline, the School Committee would need to decide whether to build an elementary, middle or senior high school, where to build it and what schools would close as a result. Reaching those decisions could take months if not longer, say school officials – certainly not in time to meet the Feb. 1 deadline.
Yet there is support for building new as well as frustration that the district has put off repairs or made improvements to schools that in only a matter of a few years are closed because of declining school enrollments.
A poll of council members found support of a school bond this year, although the amount of the bond and what controls the council might seek to impose is not clear.
“I think they need money, but the other thing I don't like is that we're using bond money for ordinary and necessary repairs. I feel bond money should be used for new infrastructure instead of repairs,” said Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla.
Calling himself “pro-schools,” Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci said “delaying [repairs] we’re only going to have additional problems in the future. Let’s go to the 85. Let’s get started.”
Freshman Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley, who opposes the consolidation plan re-purposing John Brown Francis School as the Early Childhood Center, agrees schools “have been neglected for years.” He believes Warwick and state school bond issues on the same ballot could be confusing. He also wants to see where the $85 million would be spent.
“I’m going to ask about specific projects…it seems [the school committee] favoring the Toll Gate area when it comes to spending on schools.”
Ward 7 Councilman Steve McAllister, who viewed deficiencies in the schools in his ward on tours provided by the school administration, said there is no question improvements need to be made. He favors placing the question on the ballot so voters can make the choice.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix embraces new schools but likewise is aware of the need to address the issue.
"There is a great need to invest in our schools, and with state matching funds and relatively low interest rates, there is no better time than now. I'm concerned that our newest school, built in the early '70s, will be 60-plus years old [and the oldest will be 120-plus years old] when we're done paying off the proposed bond. It makes sense to replace one or more of the worst-off buildings with a new, modern building – not only resetting the clock on repairs but creating a learning space for the 21st century – in addition to essential repairs to all other buildings,” he said in an email. Like Corley, he favors keeping John Brown Francis an elementary school.
City Council President Joseph Solomon said, “I think everyone connected to the issue realizes that [something needs to be done.] But the who, what or where matters, and what's going to be prioritized or not prioritized. You don't want to do repairs to a building you're closing down. However, that all lies within the realm of the school administration. We have no say in that.”
Referring to a burst water pipe at Toll Gate and school heating issues in the past week, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis quipped, “After seeing all the problems, I guess we need it.”
She went on to say that “it is obvious work needs to be done.” Travis’s issue is how the committee will spend the money.
“I just don’t trust them,” she said.
Ward 6 Councilman Timothy Howe, Ward 3, could not be reached for comment. The meeting on Jan. 22 will be held in Council Chambers starting at 6 p.m.
(With reports from Ethan Hartley)