Council weighs in on school renovation plans

The Cranston Herald ·

Eight out of nine sitting City Councilmen attended the School Committee presentation on Wednesday, November 14 to learn what Superintendent, Jeannine Nota-Masse aims to accomplish with the school buildings over the next five years.

 Nota-Masse gave a detailed and thorough report on the conditions of all the schools in the district, and the recommendations from the architecture firm they have been working closely with, Fielding Nair.

 “The presentation was well prepared and had a lot of information for all of us to digest. I’m very happy a plan to address issues in our schools is being put forward and that every building has had a top down assessment of its needs. I look forward to seeing the finalized plans from the school committee come to the council. I also like that the state will reimburse the city up to 70 percent of the cost. I want to thank the school department and the school committee for all the work they have done in putting the proposal together and for having the assessment done of all the buildings,” said Ward 5 Councilman, Chris Paplauskas. 

While the presentation focused on district wide issues, some Councilmen were interested about specific schools.

 “The presentation was well done but my concerns are many. Older schools like Cranston East and Hugh B. Bain are in immediate need of repairs. I’m not sure how the schools were chosen but it seems that the older schools should be addressed. I personally would like to build a new Cranston East High School. Its time has come and gone. The present site of the East campus could be demolished and sold off as prime real estate and the money used could offset the cost of the bond for a new high school. The Bain property is big enough to build a new high school after demolition. With the closing of side streets, and the space provided to right of Bain, athletic facilities could be expanded over the entire property thus eliminating the bussing of East students to practice and PE classes. The Bain population would then be absorbed into the other middle schools with some redistricting. This may seem a bit out of the box but I am tired of the Band-Aid approach. Our citizens including our students deserve this. There are many more ideas to be discussed but I feel this is a good starting point,” said Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins. 

The presentation also included the closing of one or more schools, and this concerned Ward 1 Councilman, Steve Stycos.

“The information was thought provoking, but I hope the school committee will take more time to explain it to the public and to listen to public reaction. Since the request for bonding would not go to the voters until 2020, there is no rush. Waiting a few months would also allow the two newly elected school committee members to learn about and comment on the plan.

 The superintendent's plan would close two neighborhood schools while expanding two others. Is this the direction we want to go? People generally love their neighborhood schools, so I, would like to hear about whether the school department feels children learn better in large elementary schools.

I also did not hear any mention of how the relocation of the Achievement First mayoral academy to the former Catherine Gibbs building is expected to impact public school enrollment and therefore the need for elementary schools with 500 or more students.

I hope there will be several public hearings, in different parts of the city, before the school committee decides on a plan,” he said.

Concerns were raised about getting the full community involved and the costs associated with the plan.

“A lot of work was put into this proposal to highlight the deficiencies in our current schools. I applaud the efforts from this collaborative effort amongst the consulting company, superintendent of schools and school committee. I left the meeting with a ton of questions but most importantly excited and I do believe our taxpayer dollars were well spent on this proposal to get us to look outside the box. Looking at a 20- year realistic plan to fix and improve all of our schools we don’t often see in political discussions on a local level and I’m glad we are discussing because there is a definitive need for increased school funding. This proposal still needs to go through the school committee process for recommendation before it comes in front of our council and the administration. Seeing it was the first time we saw the proposal last week I would like to hear more from the school committee, teachers/faculty, parents and our residents before formalizing my opinion. Communicating this proposal to the public and hearing our citizens’ input is essential to its potential growth and becoming a possible reality. Mr. Traficante brought up a good second option for how potential bond money could be spent alternatively and I would like to see that idea also developed. In addition, I would also like to see a phase 2, phase 3, and phase 4 of this plan to highlight all of our schools. As we learned in the meeting in the last 18 years the city of Cranston has approved 48 million in bond funding. We are asking for the public to approve significantly more in this one proposal and we have to take into consideration the financial aspects of making sure if a proposal like this is approved the proposal is executed to near perfection with the city paying a 4 or 5 percent interest rate until completion. I also believe while it’s available we should utilize the 70 percent RIDE reimbursement plan from the state and take advantage of this program leaving the cities liability only at 30 percent after completion,” said Ed Brady, Ward 4 Councilman. 

Council President, Mike Farina is looking at the whole situation through a financial prospect as well as one of the few elected officials who’s children would be impacted by the changes down the line.

 “I appreciate the collaborative process that the Superintendent used to deliver the proposal. The initial proposal included lots of work and data gathering from the School Department, the Consulting firm and the people that supported the project or worked through the meetings. That being said there are many questions I have on the proposal. I understand the need to bond for funds and to fix schools. These issues are due to decades of neglect to our buildings and we won’t fix them overnight. I want to make sure the debt service on the bonds won’t cause a tax increase. I know there are RIDE reimbursements but the reality is the City would need to put the $120million in money up first and I want to see the 5 year financial plan for the work and spending of funds to see how the taking of the bonds would affect taxes. Also I want to know how the schools were chosen to be fixed and ones that were not chosen? Are there other potential projects that could be done at other schools, can the plan be changed? How will the closing of the 2 schools affect the students and families in those schools? How are we planning to fix the schools outside the 7 chosen, can we really wait 5/7 more years to get to the other schools especially Cranston East? 

"I am hopeful that the School Committee vets this proposal and resident go to meetings and ask the questions and make sure this plan is what the people want,” Farina said.