December 20, 2014
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LETTERS
Comprehensive long-term school plan needed

To the Editor:

As the School Committee considers the current recommendation from the facility planning committee, and the public is divided, we should all be aware of a looming situation that Warwick residents face regardless of the School Committee’s decision.

The school infrastructure has been deteriorating for decades and will continue to do so until proactive, long-term capital planning by the school system and subsequent state and city funding occurs. The current proposal addresses the immediate situation but does not provide any future relief from the cyclical problem of spending precious school resources to address emergent issues in facilities that do not warrant that investment and the city’s reluctance to fund capital improvements and invest in our school’s infrastructure.

So how do we end this cycle? We engage in a comprehensive, master facilities plan (10 to 20 years) that identifies the actual infrastructure needs and solutions, and creates the public awareness needed for city leadership to invest in a thoughtful solution for the future. Ideally, the city will acknowledge, embrace and collaborate in longer term planning for the schools, but even if that does not occur initially, it is the responsibility of the school system to proactively plan for its future and utilize the power of a thoughtful, comprehensive, quantitative plan to gain public support and advocate for the state and city funding required to achieve it. The Pawtucket school system has similar infrastructure issues and I would encourage everyone to review and compare their planning efforts to Warwick’s over the same time period and follow developments as they undergo city and state approvals, including the required financing to simultaneously deal with capacity issues and bring all their school facilities up to current standards over the next 10 years. It would be devastating to find ourselves 10 to 20 years from now, in the same or worse position as today, struggling to fund new roofs as the walls are slowly crumbling around us, while Pawtucket students are benefiting from 21st century learning environments as a direct result of proactive, school system-driven, comprehensive, long-term planning.

I do not believe anyone can rationally disagree that changes need to occur within the school system, however, there can be healthy debate regarding the implementation of a short-term plan in the absence of a defined long-term solution.

If you agree with the current proposal, support it as a short-term fix to urgent issues and encourage the School Committee to approve it with the condition that a long-term plan will be developed while the short-term proposal is implemented. Also be aware that the more compelling the needs, the more chance for state and city financing for long-term capital improvements. If the current proposal is acknowledged and accepted as an immediate short-term solution (phase one of a long-term plan) and the School Committee recognizes this, along with the need for long-term infrastructure solutions, the schools will be better positioned for future plan approval and financing.

If you do not agree with the proposal, encourage the School Committee to engage in longer term planning prior to implementing short-term actions, like the Pawtucket schools. Ask the School Committee to fully address capacity and infrastructure needs in one, comprehensive master facilities plan that will identify a compelling, comprehensive solution for state and city approval and financing. The public may be divided on the current proposal, but we can all be united on the need to develop a comprehensive long-term facilities plan and provide support for the long-term, continuous investment in the future of our schools.

Jennifer Mann

Warwick


Comments
7 comments on this item

Jen,

Looking at Pawtucket's process and plan is good up to a point as it pertains to Warwick and that is the fiscal reality of the plan and the fact that the Pawtucket City Council has some serious issues with it, namely, that it does not provide much of a role for the City Council, who I believe, has to approve the whole thing. I'd invite you to read the 8/13/13 Valley Breeze article on that (unfortunately Im having a problem pasting the link here). Their plan is a $243 million dollar plan that may balloon to a $500 million total cost. Further, they're banking on a 75% RIDE reimbursement rate which is not guaranteed at this tme. I'm not equating their needs to Warwick's by any stretch, but realize that Warwick's reimbursement rate will most likely not come close to Pawtucket's because, among the mountain of data that RIDE requires for this process is a demographic assessment of the community, the percetage of free & reduced lunch population, affordable housing, rental units, etc in the community. My point is that Warwick, being an affluent community compred to Pawtucket, would not get nearly a 75% reimbursement. The LTFPC's recommendation on the table is a 5 year plan that essentially deals with the population decline at the secondary level, which has never been addressed unlike the elementary level, while at the same time setting the stage for all day K and middle school. As you know, going out 10+ is a different kettle of fish in which you look at more factors. The use of the outside company - MGT management - to do their assessment is, i believe required by RIDE in Phase 1. I'd welcome that approach for 10 and 20 years out.

David, It will certainly be interesting to follow developments in Pawtucket. I believe their strategy is to obtain state funding/approval prior to going to the City, possibly the result of current lack of city support. While it may not be our situation exactly, it warrants some consideration. Regardless, in my mind, there's little to no rationale for not engaging in proactive, long term planning. In my opinion, the lack of it here has greatly assisted in the current state of our schools.The schools have no real data, comparisons, etc. to support their needs and there exists such an opportunity to create a very powerful/persuasive needs assessment and long term plan. I have advocated for experienced planners to assist in this process and will continue to do so for future efforts and your voice would be very helpful in supporting long term planning efforts and the experts to assist. In terms of the current proposal, close monitoring of underlying assumptions/trends and oversight/support for the schools impacted will be critical. For instance, a key driver of enrollment is the percentage of high school aged children not attending public school. In Warwick, this percentage has been steadily increasing, is very significant, greatly impacts enrollment, and I'm wondering if this trend continues, flattens, or reverses in the enrollment projections (can't find methodology but I believe they are based on historical trending with maybe some adjustments for committee based assumptions? ) If the thinking is that middle school, all day k, etc. will improve our schools, does it follow that more families will choose/stay in public school and that trend will reverse? As you support the LTFPC's proposal, please also advocate for the oversight/continued monitoring needed for successful implementation. Thanks for your continued efforts/dedication to the schools!

Jen,

That may very well be what they're attempting but it's a dangerous road to take because the City Council does have the final say in committing taxpayer monies to that. I don't remember the actual numbers of kids who leave the district after grade 8 or 9. I'd be less concerned with the percentages than the actual numbers of students, though. Having said that, the current K-6 enrollments still show a decline. As you know our decline is more a function of changing demographics - the same ones that plague the state - we're getting older and the young-to-old alance will continue to tip. RI is losing population and Warwick has one of the lrger population drops in the last Census as well. All school demographic data is done by NESDEC, who also did Pawtucket's numbers. The committee used their data that goes out to 2023. NESDEC says that the 1-5 year projections are more accurate than the 6 years and beyond data but, historically, they've been accurate to within 1 - 1.5% so i have faith in those numbers. Those weren't Administration-derived numbers either. My advocacy of all day K and middle is not primarily to have more kids stay (or come back) in our schools - I'm pretty sure that, historically, the number of kids who go private in the elementarty years has been very steady - but rather to give our kids who are here a better education. If that brings in more kids then fine. I don;t know how you'd quantify how many could potentially come back except to take the number that we know are not here and pick a %. Those two things by themselves won't bring kids back - results will and until we stop being in the middle of the pack performance wise (when we have among the highest per pupil expenditures), we could have all brand new, shiny buildings and that won;t change much. Again, the current recommendation deals with declining enrollment and excess capacity at the secondary level that has never - never - been addressed. This 5 year plan, in my view, can stand on its own and does not have to be part of the 15-20 year plan. Once this is implemented, then we can look 15+ years down the road and I disagree with those who say that this can't be done without it being part of a much longer term plan that would take years to develop - all while our populations continue to decline. ANd, I'd add, that in all likelihood, the City will continue to level fund the schools. (The city does have some legal mechanisms that allow them to actually reduce their funding and part of the justtification for it is declining enrollment.) We seem to be letting the 'perfect be the enemy of the good' here...

Just a thought....as someone who took his kids out of WP schools and spent the money to send them to private schools....the issue was not the quality of the education. Most people I know send their kids to private/Catholic schools to educate their children's spirit as well as their minds. The public schools have to take everyone. The teachers are loathe to discipline anyone. Bad environment that money can't change.

David, it would be fairly easy to quantify the numbers/percentage of children not attending Warwick public schools, from what I remember of a quick comparison of 2010 census 15-19 year olds (the standard census age grouping but possible to get a different breakdown), which is a decent approximation of high school aged children, 3000 (approximate enrollment) out of 4800 potential students attend public school, so the number of high school age students to make an assumption on is about 1800. The percentage of children not attending public high schools in Warwick is about 38% and has been steadily increasing since I was in Warwick schools. I would guess there's about 20% that would stay public school if the confidence was there (I agree there will always be a certain % that will choose to send kids to private/Catholic school regardless and a basic comparison to other districts/standards could help inform that assumption or set goals for Warwick). Anyway, I think 900 is a substantial number to think about for future. I personally feel that the increasing percentage of children taking their kids out of public school does directly impact the education and my goal for the schools would be to create strategies to reverse this trend. Students are greatly influenced by their peers and the families I personally know (at least 40 families from my children's elementary school) leave a void in our schools. For my kids, the education in Warwick has been good, I cannot justify abandoning a system I believe in and will continue to support, but their peers become increasing diminished as they get older (strong argument for one high school with many levels/opportunities for all as long as properly sized, staffed, designed, etc.) and I do feel it contributes to the overall educational experience.

I heard those 1% accuracy of projections and those are ok to use as long as the historic trend data they are using continues at same rate...but dangerous, if trends reverse. I only ask because there is no methodology in the documents and having a background in strategic, facility, and demographics, it would be very helpful in my understanding of the process and my comfort level in the analysis. Yes, our population is aging but projecting birth rates and subsequently future enrollment is much more complicated (although I could directly point to experts in our state with the inside knowledge and data analysis tools by census tract) Our population is also becoming much more diverse (with a much higher fertility rate), multiple births are continuing to increase, and its important to consider home owners aging out of independent living and younger families moving into existing homes that impact our schools.

Agree and defer to you on much of the City/school dynamics but regardless of politics, a comprehensive long term plan is never a bad idea, done well, it shouldn't take years...about a year..and in my opinion should have been started years ago... we would be in a much better place today if it had, but never too late...we certainly wouldn't have wasted your and others time in the proposal last year, many of the concerns being voiced regarding the current plan would have been proactively addressed, the public and the school committee would have been informed and engaged throughout the process, and there would be a long term plan which would clearly demonstrate any short term pain/disruption. In my experience, the best way to achieve any significant change is to allow for all affected to be part of the process (by clearly outlining entire process up front and identifying clear decision points for all to provide input...including public and board), describe in detail all analysis and assumptions along the way so that those with valuable insights can actually assist in thoughtful process and all concerns can be addressed throughout process instead of at end, and to be able to communicate a clear vision/long term plan for the future that justifies the change.

I did find some projection methodology from when these projections were created (January 2011). What is concerning is that in the LTFPC recommendation, the admin lists the enrollment as of 11/13/13 at 9215 but also included the projection from NESDC for 2013 as 8,588, a difference of 627 students, that is not a 1% difference. It clearly states in the methodology that they generally(not for Warwick) tend to be within 1% when projecting for the next year using current year enrollment. The methodology goes on to say that there are many factors that can greatly influence the accuracy (many of those that are currently occurring in Warwick) and they highly recommend Warwick continually update annual projections as well as to engage in more comprehensive long term projections. Weren't these projections updated for the current recommendation? When these projections the 2010 census data had not yet been finalized, projections should be continually updated as more census info becomes available and to use projections that were off by 627 students going only two years out and not updating them for this recommendation is concerning.

Sorry, had old/original projections with methodology in front of me, they did update last year! Makes much more sense with updated projections (and prek included).

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