Ed Ladouceur, a councilman, chairman of the council finance committee and a contractor, remembers the 1998 truck that had 250,000 miles on it and started to show its age. When its spark plugs started coming out, he had the engine head bored for a couple of hundred dollars and kept it on the road, but he knew there would come a time when he would be throwing good money after bad.
Ladoucuer is thinking sinking more money in fixing up some of our schools could be the same thing. He has questions about putting another $6 million into Vets Junior High School for a new heating and air exchange system and he has concerns with the School Committee’s proposed $85 million bond for the first phase in $250 million in school renovations and upgrades.
Both the $6 million for Vets and the $85 million require City Council approval. The $85 million bond also requires General Assembly approval if the referendum is to appear on a special election ballot this November. The bond would require voter approval for the schools to get the funding.
Ladouceur isn’t alone in questioning whether it makes sense fixing up older buildings and not consider building some new schools. City Council President Joseph Solomon would like to know what it costs to build a school and plans to be in touch with North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi. North Providence is building a school.
“Ed’s right,” Solomon said of Ladouceur, “if you’ve got an old vehicle maybe it’s time to get a new one.”
Ladouceur resigned from the committee charged to bring a bonding recommendation to the School Committee on grounds that it was weighted in favor of schools and that the outcome was pre-decided.
“Why isn’t the superintendent talking about new schools?” asked Ladouceur. He also thought the School Committee and mayor should be considering new schools. He thinks a new school would have the best technology, the best labs and would act to reenergize the system and boost morale.
“We have all the tools. Why wouldn’t you want to figure out a way to do it?” he said.
And what might a new school cost?
Ladouceur is looking into that. He thought a school large enough to accommodate more than 1,100 students could be built in the range of $150 million. And where might it go? He suggests the site of the former Gorton Junior High School that is planned for administrative offices. He noted that the Gorton site has ample outdoor fields.
While Ladouceur’s suggestions may resonate, it doesn’t answer what’s to be done now to address problems, including those at Vets. The administration is proposing the existing steam system at Vets, which is generated by oil-powered boilers with a rooftop natural gas-powered air system. That system and an air-exchange system would be installed over the next two summers using bonding already approved for school use.
“I have no problem supporting the release [of the bond funds] as long as it is to protect the health and safety,” said Solomon.
Solomon also wants to learn if there’s anything to claims that air quality is an issue at the school. He said he understands air quality tests are to be performed and he wants to see those reports.
Solomon was critical of bond funds for cosmetic improvements to the school.
“A new color on the wall shouldn’t be a priority,” he said.
Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, has no doubts that air quality and mold are issues at Vets. In response to Superintendent Philip Thornton’s observation that only now does the air quality seem to be an issue when the schools and teachers haven’t been able to reach a contract, Netcoh said there are many cases where teachers working at the school have had respiratory problems.
“Opening the windows is not a remedy when it’s 20 degrees outside,” she said.
Asked about union support of the $6 million proposed for Vets as well as the $85 million proposed for school building upgrades, Netcoh said the administration “has not proven it can responsibly use the money.”
She said what the department spent on making Vets and Pilgrim look nice last fall was a public relations move and “now teachers are getting violently ill at Vets.”
The council is slated to consider the School Committee’s $85 million bond proposal on Feb. 6.