To adjust to a declining school age population, and reduce costs, the committee studying school consolidations has proposed a series of options that range from closing two junior high schools to closing a high school.
Once at a high of more than 20,000 students, school enrollment now stands at 9,895, a drop of 301 from last year. Enrollment is projected to decline to 8,556 by 2020.
The Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) met Tuesday to hear from a number of officials, as they consider their options.
Following the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak said the committee plans to focus on two of the six options under consideration. The options include: closing a junior high; closing a senior high; closing both a junior and senior high; closing two junior highs and moving students into the closed senior high building; closing two junior highs and moving students to their feeder senior highs, which would contain grades 7-12; and moving grade 6 up to the junior highs to create a 6-8 model.
“We will take a good, hard look at closing two junior highs and fitting those students in one of the high school buildings, which would be closed and those students would be split between the two remaining high schools,” Horoshcak said. “We’ll [also] take a detailed look at closing two junior highs and moving them to the campus of their senior high.”
Horoschak said the committee hopes to have a recommendation for the School Committee by February or March. While he didn’t rule out the possibility of something being done next school year, he said it is dependent on the pace of the LTFPC meetings and what option is ultimately decided on.
During the meeting, William Sangster, interim assistant to the superintendent, gave a presentation detailing the feasibility in terms of building capacity for the first four options on the list. Sangster asked principals to give him a count of classrooms that could hold 28 students, the maximum allowed, and then took 75 percent of the number of students to get the reasonable capacity.
Sangster first looked at consolidating one junior high into the other two junior highs.
“If we consolidated Gorton into Winman and Aldrich, the un-weighted capacity fits the reasonable capacity, but the weighted capacity doesn’t fit, so we would need to adjust the feeder patterns,” he said.
Sangster explained that at the secondary level, special education students count as 1.5 students and intensive education students count as 2 students in terms of classroom weighting, which is built into the district’s contract with the Warwick Teachers Union.
With regard to high schools, Sangster said moving Vets into Toll Gate and Pilgrim would be a tight fit, and while moving Toll Gate into Vets and Pilgrim wouldn’t be as tight, he said “it’s pretty close.”
Looking at the next option, Sangster said Pilgrim could “more than handle” accommodating two junior highs in terms of size, and a similar situation exists at Vets, but Toll Gate would be “a bit tighter.”
“If it’s not mathematically possible, it’s not possible,” he said.
Sangster said it was also important to keep in mind spacing issues and whether or not other areas of the school buildings used by students could handle incoming students, such as cafeterias, gyms, locker rooms, auditoriums, band rooms, etc.
Paul Jansson, interim assistant director of buildings and grounds, said the buildings range in age from Gorton, which was built in 1938, to Winman and Toll Gate that were built in the 1970s.
“Pilgrim, Toll Gate, Vets, and Winman all have something in common; they have a steel skeletal frame holding the building up,” he said. “This means the walls could come down to re-arrange the building if needed, but that’s not the case at Gorton and Aldrich.”
Jansson said in the event a cafeteria needed to be expanded to accommodate additional students that could only be accomplished at Vets. He said there are more than enough lockers to support additional students at each of the high schools; it would just be a matter of moving the lockers where they needed to go.
Jansson said there are two types of costs to look at when considering closing a school; costs that follow the building, such as electricity and heat, and costs that follow the student, such as cleaning supplies, like hand soap.
Working off of fiscal year 2011 budget numbers, Jansson said there are capital improvements associated with each school, some of which are included with the 2006 bond approved by voters but yet to be released by the mayor, and other capital improvements that are anticipated but were not included in the 2006 bond, such as most boilers and energy-consuming items, which Jansson said “are in pretty rough shape” because “we’ve delayed maintenance.”
With respect to fire code renovations, Jansson said all buildings are in need of work, but his department has broken up the work into three phases, to be completed over the next three summers. The first phase includes six elementary schools and two secondary schools.
“We have to do close to $9 million worth of work in fire code renovations, so we placed the older buildings [Gorton and Aldrich] in the third phase because we don’t want to spend money doing the work if we’re going to consolidate the buildings,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that Gorton and Aldrich will be closed; depending on what the committee decides, that could all go out the window and we’d have to change things around.”
One of the matters brought to the committee’s attention while discussing the condition of facilities was the inadequate athletic facilities at Toll Gate. The committee talked about how many athletic events are offsite because the fields aren’t in great shape.
“The athletic facilities at Toll Gate can’t handle a 1,000-student high school, so if we made it a 1,500-student high school, it would make the situation even less accommodating,” Sangster said. “If we make a decision to close a school, the schools we keep open need to be set up so they are self-contained and can last a long time.”
When discussing moving two junior highs to their feeder high school campuses, Toll Gate Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz asked if the committee would be doing the right thing educationally.
“I ran a junior-senior high for eight years and it was built to be that; never the two shall meet,” he said. “Moving a junior high into a senior high will never work. Ask a parent if they want their seventh grader with a senior.”
Sangster said if junior highs were to be moved into the senior highs, junior high students would have to be kept separate from senior high students.
A parent in the audience, who said he has four children in the Warwick school system, said he hopes the grade 7-12 model is a last resort option because from a parent’s perspective, he said it’s not attractive.
“I don’t want my seventh grader anywhere near a senior,” he said. “If people have a choice to move somewhere else, they will do so.”
Using data from NESDEC (New England School Development Council) as recent as last year, Robert Bushell, director of elementary education, showed how enrollment has experienced a “precipitous drop” over the years.
“NESDEC’s projections are very accurate, they were off less than 1 percent last year,” he said. “There are two factors they consider; live births and migration, and they do a five-year enrollment projection.”
Bushell said families are leaving Warwick due to no jobs available, the high cost of living and airport expansion.
“We used to have 1,300 live births in Warwick when I first started doing this,” he said. “As of last Wednesday, there were 803 live births in 2010. That data comes from the Kids Count Conference held each year.”
Bushell said only 75 percent of the live births in Warwick attend Warwick public schools; the other 25 percent attend private schools or move away.
“We’ve experienced a 200-student drop in K through 12 in 10 years,” he said. “We’ve had a negative percentage change in population over the past eight years. The live births are dropping almost every year. It’s not a pretty picture for numbers.”
Bushell said there was a time when he used to have 1,000 students in every class at the elementary level, but now he doesn’t have one that is larger than 700.
“Sixty-six percent of people living in Warwick don’t have a child in school; that’s two-thirds,” he said.
Bushell said the NESDEC data is very reliable.
“We used NESDEC data when we consolidated four elementary schools and we were able to do what we said we would,” he said.
“So it’s not a matter of worrying about increases in population or staying the same, it’s a matter of we’re facing declining enrollment,” Horoschak said. “If we make a decision to change the system or close schools, we want to make sure it’s beneficial for the instructional process first; we don’t want to economize at the expense of programs.”
Although Sangster said there’s no need for a full redistricting at this point, Horoschak said that may come into play if John Wickes has to be closed due to airport expansion.
With respect to expansion, Rhode Island Airport Corporation President Kevin Dillon said there are approximately 140 homes that could be acquired by RIAC due to expansion, about 60 of which could be purchased on a voluntary basis, 24 of which are apartment complexes located north of the runway, with an additional 70 being available for voluntary acquisition due to being in a high noise contour, which would get extended from where it is currently if Runway 5-23 were to be extended to 8,700 feet to the south, as projected. On top of that, Dillon said there are an additional 70 homes that RIAC plans to acquire through voluntary acquisition that is already underway.
“If folks want to leave, we’ll make an attempt to purchase the homes,” he said.
In addition, he said, 10 homes would have to be acquired in order to push out Main Avenue from its original location to accommodate expansion.
Bushell said he initially understood the Main Avenue relocation would come into Child Lane, which is located 200 feet from the entrance to Wickes. Echoing Bushell, Jansson said he had concerns that Child Lane, which is about 50 feet wide, is a narrow road and that the entrance to Wickes could be obstructed by equipment during construction of the new portion of Main Avenue.
When asked about a timeline for expansion work, Dillon said RIAC was about to start appraisals on the properties north of the runway and planned to relocate the Winslow ball fields this summer. He said the plan was to complete construction north of the runway in 2013, construction south of the runway in 2014 and have all work completed by 2015, including the acquisition of homes in the noise contour. However, Dillon said, since the city has decided to challenge the FAA Record of Decision, the project could be delayed for at least 18 months, or as long as three years, before any work could start.
“The city is actually suing the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], they’re not suing us [RIAC], so we could move forward with the work today, but the problem is we wouldn’t have the funds to support it since 75 percent of the funds for the project would come from the FAA,” Dillon said.
When asked if Wickes could be further impacted by noise and pollution should expansion occur, Dillon said he didn’t believe anything would change from how it is now.
Before leaving, Dillon said he would send a list of the streets impacted by expansion, as well as a conceptual design of how Child Lane might be impacted by the relocation of Main Ave., to the committee per its request.
Following the presentations, Horoschak asked committee members to think about what options they felt strongest about pursuing.
A date for the next LTFPC meeting was not yet set, as Sangster planned to meet with Jansson to go over floor plans of the buildings to walk the committee through how moving students into different buildings would actually look and wanted time to go over that information before scheduling the next meeting.