The Warwick School Committee began 2014 with a full agenda, as members returned from the holiday break for the January meeting on Tuesday.
In addition to approving a list of items, including the acceptance of a wireless grant from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to install wireless access points in the classrooms of all school buildings, as well as a vendor to do the work, and a bond resolution for the third and final phase of fire code upgrades to be made this summer, the committee also had to re-address the Dec. 10, 2013 vote on the hiring of an outside consultant to develop a long-term plan for the district in regards to consolidation because of a procedural error in voting the first time around.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained that in the 2012-13 state budget, the state authorized a $20 million bond for securing wireless access throughout all public schools in the state. He said for the past 18 months, RIDE collaborated with school districts to draw up a protocol for administering the grant money.
According to Ferrucci, the established protocol consists of the following: RIDE prepared bid specifications for what the bond would be able to cover, including technology wiring, hardware and labor to install the equipment; RIDE mandated a minimum of three vendors take the time to review every building in every district and prepare a bid using RIDE’s bid specifications to be presented to RIDE and the district’s administration for consideration; bid proposals would be reviewed by RIDE and the district in which the bid was received; RIDE would then provide the district with a grant award in the amount necessary to meet the bid agreed on by both parties.
In Warwick’s case, Ferrucci said the grant award totals $1,174,567.42, the term of the grant runs from Jan. 3, 2014 through June 30, 2015 and it covers all 24 instructional buildings in the district, as of Jan. 1, 2014. He added that wireless access paid for by RIDE is limited to student access defined by RIDE, which does not include cafeterias, gymnasiums, school offices and other “administrative areas.”
“If a school department wants access in these areas, it is expected to be paid for by other sources of funds,” Ferrucci said.
Ferrucci explained that a Wireless Review Team was established to look at Warwick’s wireless needs and to select a vendor. The team recommended the contract be awarded to Whalley Computer Associates, which met the bid specifications and was approved by RIDE.
“We’re asking for your approval for Dr. [Richard] D’Agostino, as superintendent, to sign the grant agreement,” Ferrucci said, adding that as part of the process, prospective vendors provided pieces of equipment that were installed and tested in the district to see if it was compatible.
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn asked why the lowest bidder, also a local vendor, was not approved for the contract.
Chris Porter, Warwick Schools’ assistant manager of technology, explained the local vendor did not have a wireless access point in each class room, as required by RIDE.
“Whalley Computer Associates was the only vendor to have a wireless access point in each class room. The other vendors either had access points in every other class room or in the hallways, as wireless access zones,” he said. “There was also an issue with the ease of use with the local vendor.”
“With every other class room or zones, we felt we could outgrow that in a few years and would need additional equipment down the road, which would mean spending more money,” Ferrucci added.
Ahearn also had questions about service costs and warranties.
“We have a five-year guarantee from Whalley Computer Associates, which means no service costs for five years. All other companies proposed a one-year warranty before service costs kick in,” Ferrucci said.
In regards to the bond resolution for the final phase of fire code upgrades, Ferrucci said at the Nov. 12, 2013 School Committee meeting the committee authorized the administration to prepare a bond resolution for fire code work and roof repairs totaling $3,374,600.
That bond included $3,395,541 to complete phase three of the fire code upgrades at the seven remaining buildings in the district, including Aldrich and Gorton junior high schools; $2,381,562 for a new roof at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, as required by NEASC in order to retain accreditation; $750,000 in other district capital needs; and $20,394 in contingencies, which totals $6,547,497. That total was then offset by carry-over funds from phase two work completed last summer, which came in under budget by $1,117,497 as well as the removal of Aldrich ($911,649) and Gorton ($1,143,750) in phase three when it became apparent the buildings might be consolidated, to arrive at the $3,374,600.
Ferrucci explained that since the school department was aware Aldrich and Gorton were under consideration for consolidation, rather than pay the $160,000 needed to complete engineering work on buildings that may not need upgrades if they were to be consolidated, the department requested a one-year extension from the state fire marshal, which granted the request.
Before the bond resolution was approved at Tuesday’s meeting, Ferrucci highlighted some alterations to the bond. He said Aldrich and Gorton were added back into the bond since the School Committee informed him it did not want to go before the city for a fourth bond request. To offset that expense, as well as an additional $326,163 in other district capital needs, the cost for the Vets roof was removed.
“We’re in danger for accreditation at Vets,” Ferrucci said after the meeting.
Ferrucci explained that although the funding for upgrades at Aldrich and Gorton is included in the 2014 fire code bond resolution, due to the one-year extension and not knowing if Aldrich and Gorton will be consolidated, the actual work will not be performed until the summer of 2015, if needed.
Ahearn said she had a hard time approving the bond appropriation.
“I wasn’t aware we had to pay for these capital improvements on buildings that we don’t own,” she said. “Go back to the city and request they provide the funds for this.”
Ahearn then asked for background on why Warwick is the only district where the school department is responsible for paying bond debt and interest for work completed on buildings owned by the city, not the school department.
Ferrucci, who has only been in the district for three years, said his understanding was the only way to secure release of the bond money from the city, is if the school department agrees to assume the debt service and interest on the bonds.
“I don’t think this is appropriate,” Ahearn said. “This is very challenging since we are level-funded and still required to pay for these types of capital improvements, which takes away money from the class room.”
D’Agostino explained the bidding and engineering needs to be in place soon in order for the work to be completed in the summer.
“It’s a timing issue,” he said.
Paul Jansson, assistant director of buildings and grounds, said contract documents are going out Jan. 24 and coming back in February to be awarded in March.
“We’ve had success in the past; any delay in that puts the process in jeopardy,” he said.
Ahearn then asked if Rosemary Healey, as legal counsel for the school department, could look at legal options to get the city to pay for bonds concerning buildings it owns and report back to the School Committee with her findings in April.
Following the vote to approve the bond resolution, committee member Karen Bachus asked that City Council President Donna Travis and Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who were both in the audience, work with the School Committee members on the bonding issue going forward.
“We’re one city and we need to work together,” she said.
Vella-Wilkinson said as chair of the council’s Finance Committee, she would do her part to have the School Committee speak to city financial officials regarding the issues raised by Ahearn.
Finally, the committee re-addressed its Dec. 10 vote concerning the hiring of an outside consultant to develop a long-term plan for the school district with regard to consolidation.
School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado explained there was a procedural error during the vote in December because while it was mentioned the vote on consolidation would be tabled in favor of hiring an outside consultant to study the issue, the tabling of consolidation was not officially part of the motion that was made, voted on and ultimately approved.
The new motion, unanimously approved by the committee Tuesday, tables the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s recommendation to consolidate Aldrich and Gorton junior high schools and re-purpose Vets High School as a super junior high, and instead instructs the School Committee to create a sub-committee to develop an RFP [Request for Proposals] for an outside consultant to be hired through a bidding process, the scope of which to be recommended by the sub-committee to the School Committee at a future School Committee meeting as soon as practical.