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School closures could save $4.4M
Jennifer Rodrigues

Last week the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee decided it is possible to consolidate three high schools into two. They have yet to determine which school should be transitioned to a junior high, a decision that could come as early as their meeting tomorrow.

The committee has toured the three high schools, examined student population projections and looked at classroom utilization. The final pieces of the puzzle, increased transportation needs and financial impact, were presented to the Committee Thursday.

When Transportation Manager Steven O’Haire and Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci presented their respective reports, the difference between transitioning Warwick Veterans Memorial or Pilgrim to a junior high boiled down to two buses.

Neither O’Haire or Ferrucci presented any scenario in which Toll Gate High School nor Winman Junior High School experienced any closure, further confirming the feeling that those two schools would not be touched during this consolidation.

According to O’Haire, to transport would-be Pilgrim students to Vets or Toll Gate High School and former Gorton and Aldrich students to Pilgrim, would require 16 additional buses. In the instance of a Vets closure and transition to junior high, would require 14 buses. According to Ferrucci’s report, that is an additional cost of $1,124,000 versus $988,000.

Ferrucci’s report on the fiscal impact boiled down to a savings of $4.3 million in a Vets closure situation versus $4.4 million in the instance of a Pilgrim closure. The only difference is transportation costs.

“Consolidating a high school, which high school building you close and where you send the students, the numbers of teachers have to follow the kids. The number of custodians, the number of support people that are in those buildings are similar, so we would end up saving one way or the other. They all turn out to be about the same,” said Ferrucci.

To create his report on transportation needs, O’Haire used changes to the feeder elementary schools to determine where students would go to high school, the current population of the 8h, 9th, 10th and 11th grades for next year’s high school population, and the current percentage of high school students taking the bus to estimate how many would require bus transportation.

In the event of Pilgrim closing, O’Haire suggested students in the Norwood and Holliman school areas go to Toll Gate and the students in the remaining four Pilgrim feeder school areas go to Vets.

“I came up with the need for 17 buses to transport [would-be Pilgrim] students to Toll Gate and Vets,” O’Hare continued. “Six would be going to Toll Gate for 318 students and 11 would be going to vets for 644 students.”

Since O’Haire currently uses only six buses to transport 22 percent of Pilgrim’s students to school, he would need to request just over $749,000 for 11 additional busses at next year’s predicted cost of $68,159 per bus. He also added the need for one additional special education bus as a precaution.

The second half of the Pilgrim closing scenario would be the need to transport Aldrich and Gorton students to Pilgrim for junior high.

“It would be a totaling of 14 buses,” said O’Haire.

Based on current bus availability, O’Haire would have 11 of those 14 already, so he calculated the need for an additional three to bring students to a reopened Pilgrim; he also recommended one additional special education bus be budgeted for.

Moving on, O’Haire presented the same information in the event of Vets closing and becoming a junior high. O’Haire suggested students in the Lippitt Elementary and Park Elementary areas attend Toll Gate because those are the closest to current Toll Gate feeder schools. Students in the areas of the remaining three Vets feeders would attend Pilgrim.

“We need a total of 16 buses to move the 901 students [who would be at Vets to Toll Gate and Pilgrim]. We’ve got seven buses available, meaning we need an additional nine buses to the tune of 613,000 and change plus the extra 84,000 and change for the extra special ed bus,” said O’Haire.

O’Haire then looked at the Aldrich and Gorton students being housed at a potential Vets Junior High and determined the need to be the same.

“The demand for Aldrich and Gorton being housed at Vets would be similar or equal to the demand of Aldrich and Gorton being housed at Pilgrim. It would still require three additional large buses and the recommendation for one more special ed bus,” said O’Haire.

Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino specifically asked O’Haire about the affect to transportation with special education students, and O’Haire said he would use all existing special education buses but added one into each of his projections as a precaution.

“I don’t see a huge effect on special ed [buses],” said O’Haire. “I recommend putting one in the budget and seeing what we can do.” O’Haire also said which feeder schools go to which school could be changed if the committee so chooses.

Ferrucci’s fiscal impact of consolidation explained a breakdown of “significant pieces” that would be impacted by the potential closure of secondary schools.

According to Ferrucci, if consolidation were to occur with either Vets or Pilgrim becoming a junior high and Gorton and Aldrich closing, the School Department could expect annual savings of $470,034 in operating costs (electricity, heating, supplies), $4,613,000 in staffing, and $360,000 by consolidating extra-curricular activities and reducing food service debt.

Ferrucci explained that he refers to the savings as annual because if the current funding level remains constant, those are costs that would no longer need to be covered each year.

He also pointed out that while a total consolidation of 35 certified staff members (teachers and administrators) and 20 non-certified staff members (clerks, secretaries, custodians) is what he calculated based on the needs of the student population, that number of cuts would not be allowed in one year due to contracts.

Ferrucci also made note of cost avoidance for the School Department by no longer needing to do fire code upgrades at Aldrich and Gorton. In total (fire code bonding and other capital improvements bonding), the district would not need to endure future costs of $10,014,711, which would be broken up into annual payments of $801,120 for up to 20 years.

Following O’Haire and Ferrucci’s reports, the committee had a brief discussion comparing Vets to Pilgrim. Looking specifically at special education students, it was repeatedly brought up that Pilgrim hosts the majority of the city’s special needs students, as well as one of the central kitchens for the surrounding schools.

The importance of location also came up because Toll Gate is located in the southern part of the city, Pilgrim in the north and Vets with easy access from north and south.

“I think location is an important part of this. I think looking at transporting kids to the Career Center is important. I think when you look at Toll Gate being south, I look at what’s north in the city. And north in the city is Pilgrim,” said D’Agostino.

He added the fact that Vets is easily accessible from north and south, and the proximity of a school to I-95 for students who work out of the city should also be considered.

Then the discussion turned to the committee’s response to the conditions of the three buildings they toured.

“Pilgrim, in my opinion, is the building that needs the most help,” said Stephanie Van Patten, a committee member. “And I’m afraid if we keep it open as the high school it’s not going to get the renovations it needs.”

D’Agostino went a step further, pointing out that he wasn’t happy with the quality of any of the three high schools.

The committee appeared to be in agreement that they would be unable to rank the buildings because, as Nancy Plumb put it, none of the three would be considered “state-of-the-art.”

“I think it’s glaring that there needs to be repairs because I think they’re all in the same shape. Vets needs the same type of things as Pilgrim does,” said D’Agostino.

The conversation continued with each member bringing up problems they noticed, mostly in Vets and Pilgrim, such as asthma acting up, cleanliness in the auditorium and the quality of ceilings.

“It was disturbing to see the quality of these buildings,” said Jacqueline Harris-Connors, who scheduled her own individual tours of each high school because she could not make the group ones. “This is not a poor city. There’s a lot of money that flows into the system, and I want to know why it is these buildings that have been allowed to become so run down.”

While Van Patten believed Pilgrim to be in the worst shape cosmetically, D’Agostino pointed out that Vets might benefit the most for a yearlong closure and becoming the junior high because it needs a new roof, new elevator and new boiler.

“Whatever building we chose, whether it be Pilgrim or Vets, I want that building, we all want that building, to be in excellent shape when those junior high students walk into that building they feel like they are in a new building,” said D’Agostino.

A possible timeline of consolidation would have the high school closing in 2014 and reopening as a junior high the following year when Aldrich and Gorton close.

Before the conclusion of the meeting, D’Agostino asked if the committee members were prepared to say which school they felt should be closed. While some members seemed prepared to make a choice, the ultimate decision was to digest the transportation and financial reports, think about the discussion of the buildings, and come up with any final questions for the administrators to address for their next meeting.


Comments
14 comments on this item

Why not just turn Pilgrim into the one middle school for the city and Tollgate into the one high school?

The student population of Warwick is only going to get smaller, so why not do this now and avoid having to go through all this hand wringing again in several years?

If the kids are a bit crowded now, just add trailer classroom space on an as needed basis.

Sure, the kids may be shoehorned into classrooms, get a second-rate education, and be just another brick in the wall; but think of all the tax dollars we will save!

You need a long term plan. Close down one building on a rotating schedule each of the next four years for a complete over hall. Then in year five, permanently close down Aldrich and Gorton. Sell those properties along with the closed elementary schools and pay off the debt service from the renovations. After four years you have four "like new" buildings with lower annual maintenance costs and no debt. This leaves you with improved facilities and lower annual operating costs going forward.

This is how things are done in the private sector. The school committee has been studying this for two years and still cannot figure this out?

Why are the physical school buildings in Warwick in such bad shape?

The answer to that question is that in 2006 voters approved of plans by the school committee to borrow $20 million in bonds over a five year period for fire safety and capital improvement projects ranging from new boilers, roofs, auditorium repairs, technology enhancements, etc., for elementary and secondary schools throughout the city.

With construction projects ready to begin, the mayor abruptly decided to freeze all capital spending in 2007 as a result of the deteriorating financial condition of the city (btw - that never was properly reported at the time and still isn’t being reported - i.e. glaring headlines of recent so called surplus).

Anyone remember the big controversy regarding the leaky Pilgrim High School roof in 2007 and the mayor not willing to release the funds needed for a new roof even after part of a classroom ceiling crashed down on a student and experts testified that a new roof was needed?

So while school buildings crumbled, the educational budget was cut or level funded year after year (today it is slightly higher then what it was in 2008), yet annual increases in property taxes continued. Remember the CAR TAX REVLOT resulting from new motor vehicle taxes was enacted? Practically all those new tax dollars collected was allocated to the city budget.

For the first time ever (and I believe the only school system in the state) the Warwick school department is required to fund out of its general educational budget all capital improvement projects on school buildings that the city once paid for from its budget.

In the last decade taxpayer paid over $23 million in new taxes to fund increases in employee benefits ranging from salary, pension and free lifetime healthcare for retired workers.

These cost that once consumed 31% of the city budget now consumes 43% of the city budget, yet we couldn’t afford to spend less dollars to ensure that the buildings our children and teachers and administrators frequent every single day are safe and conducive to properly educating our children?

That is why the school buildings are in such bad shape!

The structural problems in this city associated with legacy costs have once again been swept under the rug the mayor and the city council. They keep blaming the tax increases on school spending when in fact its city spending.

Current liabilities in the city are over $1 BILLION and growing each year and while the school budget is cut, programs are slashed and schools are closed in order for school leaders to take the saving and self invest back into the school budget, city leaders on the other hand are not held to the same standards.

They continue to increase spending each year to new record levels requiring more and more new tax dollars to fund retired employee benefits. That trend has no sign of abating because Mayor Avedisian and the City Council refuse to address the issue.

But don't expect our spending priorities to change if we continue to put the same people back in charge of our tax dollars every two years.

I think it would make most sense to close Vets for one year and make Pilgrim the high school. It would be a huge disruption to the special education population that is housed at Pilgrim. They do not deal well with change, but why would the school department actually make a decision based on student needs? It is all about the money. Lets turn Warwick in to a district like Providence where there are 30 students in each class. Just watch the test scores fall even more as the teacher to student ratio goes up.

Enoughalready, it's not quite like that. First, the rotational closing of schools would be a logistical nightmare. Once Gorton and Aldrich are closed, the school dept has to turn them over to the city because they're not owned by the school dept. Do you really think that the city will give the proceeds to the school dept. I have some land in Florida I'll sell you if you think so. Truth is, the schools will pay for the debt service since that Pandora's box was opened a few years ago by the Mayor when Pilgrims roof needed to be replaced and he said that they could get a new roof if they could pay for it. Never mind that Pilgrims accreditation was on the line because of the condition of its roof. The reason this is has gone on for two years is because the first proposal to close Gorton was shortsighted and was not done as part of a long term plan. That seems to be what they're doing now and I commend them for that.

Bob, you and I know the real reason why the schools are in such bad shape, it was the years of removing money from the maintenance department to other departments that had a short fall in their budget or someone wanted something. The former director not being as strong as the rest of the administration to stop it. It was the "Dooley Math" we all heard about, the years of across the board bad decisions by School Committee's to give pay increases to all staff, make up positions for people, out right lies by the Union and Administration. Tell you what why doesn't someone go to the city and pull the building inspection reports, I have and I was enraged at what I read buildings with no running water in the bathrooms, exposed electric wiring, gapping holes with water leaking from the roof into the paper storage room, rooms divided by walls with no permit pulled, no fire rated doors on boiler rooms, closers not working (when we have them sitting on Draper Ave but no man power to put them in). We closed Greene in order to move Admin staff out of a building that the insurance company stated they would not pay for "sick build" syndrome but yet allow kids in buildings that are ten times worst than the main Admin. Why are we looking to close schools? When we hire Admin to fill positions that didn't even exisit last year. Any way they are going to do what they want they always have and will.

I always find it interesting that they NEVER consider Tollgate for closing....Just looking at things like 'history' with football teams, or even their lack of decent sports facilities and fields there......yes it's an entire 'complex' up there, but just because it is a newer facility, doesn't make it any better! And I've lived in this city for 23 years now, and currently have no children in any school so this doesn't really affect me except for things like homecoming for the kids, redistricting hasn't happened in these 23 years...there are districts where redistricting is a fact of life, every 3-5 years. Yes I am aware our school age population is shrinking and we need to do something, but at least look at redistricting as well.

I also don't see that the schools in the airport fly zone/noise area being discussed. The planes fly right over Pilgrim.....schools like Robertson and Wickes are also loud and too close to the planes, At some point, the runway and airport zones are going to change, it's already in motion.

Just remember it is about economics not education.

We are talking widgets here, not students. The more widgets you can put into one place the better. Doesn't matter if the roof leaks, or the desks have been carved by countless generations of bored widgets, if it keeps costs down and NECAP scores are acceptable it is for the best.

There is no future, just the immediate gratification of today's taxpayers.

teachers will whine, of course probably even start picketing....well that's nothing new but there are fewer students so close some schools. it's not a difficult concept to understand.

All the school facilities in Warwick are subpar and this continual ad hoc planning is very disheartening. As school districts around the country, as well as our neighboring districts, hire experienced facility planning professionals to analyze the entire system and develop a comprehensive long term plan, Warwick continues to waste year after year of people's time and precious resources. The facilities planning committee, including many members who I respect, needs to push back on this "facilities planning process" and demand a true comprehensive plan. For them to buy into and sign onto a plan of this nature would be irresponsible for the future of our city and something I hope they would seriously consider before moving forward. There is nothing wrong with the administration and the planning co. describing what they have learned to date (there has been a lot of good work already completed), recognizing that the state of the facilities/years of neglect have created a situation that could be best addressed by professionals who have dedicated their career to solving these types of problems, and recommending engaging them for a systemwide, long term solution to the school committee. There are times when even the most capable professionals need outside expertise and this is one of them. There is no possible way volunteers and school administration with other full-time responsibilities can dedicate the time or have the experience required to address the systemic facilities issues in Warwick and they should not be expected to do so.

It is also critical that the City and school leadership get past their issues and work together for the common good of our schools. I compare it to two divorced parents, they have had their differences, may be independent, but they still need to find a way to work together for the best for their children. It is time for the City and schools to work together for the children of Warwick, and subsequently, everyone in Warwick. The benefit we all have as citizens of Warwick, unlike children of divorced parents, is that we have the collective ability to change "parents" if they cannot find a way to work responsibly on behalf of our children/City.

TomDaniels, You should forward those inspection reports (and post them!) I would not be surprised by any of it. I'm appalled by the condition of the schools (every one I go into). I see duct tape covering electrical sockets, sharpie writing "do not touch", paint peeling, water stained ceiling panels, graffiti carved into plexiglass windows that you cannot see through, dark and dreary hallways (just walk into winman and down the hall toward nurse, you can barely see its so dark) , bathroom tiles crumpling, pipes bursting in brand new computer rooms, freezing cold and sweltering classrooms (on the same day!), no warm water to wash hands, rust stained sinks, traffic patterns forcing young children to cross in front of buses (despite many desperate pleas by parents to school administration and school committee chair), it goes on and on...while I agree the City was remiss in not funding improvements in 2006, I believe the condition of facilities is not just a result of the past seven years but of decades of neglect. An unbiased analysis of systemwide issues and costs of renovation vs. new construction should be performed before wasting anymore time/money or disrupting students/teachers for minimal improvements.

Justanidiot has it right. It's not about education, it's about economics. The more students you can pack in a facility, regardless of its condition, is what really matters.

I was going to go into some lame reason not to change Warwick Veterans Memorial into a junior high, but really, the only reason is, I don't want your even-dopier-than-high-school kids walking all over my yard. That's all.

Otherwise, I don't care. Close the whole damned system and bus them out to Eat Greenwich and Cranston as "disadvantaged children." Most of them have no command of the basics of education, and frankly, neither do many of their parents. This means two, maybe even three generations of piss-poor educations in Warwick.

Sadly, those children and parents are totally unaware of what I'm talking about, and if they read this, they'll wonder who I mean.

So, all three high schools are in bad shape. (Shame on everyone involved.) And the plan is to take the one that it is the worst physical shape and put half of Warwick's high school students in it? How does this make sense? If you are going to take a year to fix a building, shouldn't it be the one that needs the most help?

There is one simple fact that I see none mentions here, the affect that the schools have on our property values and I wonder why it is never brought up? If there is not a quality school system how are we going to get young families to move or stay in Warwick? It really is that simple folks look at most of your tax bills and how the value of your homes is dropping and how many homes that are for sale and how long they take to sell. People in this city need to wake up and stop electing the same people over and over and elect the people that will make the changes that need to be made to help this city prosper.

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