By all accounts, Warwick experienced a smooth start to the school year, as department directors detailed the school openings process during reports at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. Apart from some busing issues during the first few days, which were quickly addressed, the opening of schools was a success, with some even calling it one of the best starts.
This year marked the first school opening with an outside vendor handling transportation, as First Student was awarded a contract to handle the busing of students, including special education students.
“The schedule needed to work with an outside vendor and communicate with the community requires us to start the process earlier [next year],” said Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci. “We used to work on the fly [when things were handled in-house], but now we must coordinate schedules [with an outside vendor], so it’s something to keep an eye on.”
Ferrucci said the department plans to begin the process earlier next year, as it requires a great deal of work and organization with constant changes being made, even up to the last minute, especially when working with an outside vendor for the first time.
Transportation Manager Steve O’Haire detailed his work coordinating with First Student leading up to the start of schools.
“The [bus] schedules were prepared and sent to First Student on August 22. Typically, we present the information up to the day before [schools open],” he said. “Revised schedules were presented on August 27 with 27 changes made to seven [bus] runs. Between August 28 and August 31, 147 changes were made.”
O’Haire said an additional 39 changes were made between Sept. 4 and Sept. 6, resulting in a total of 186 changes made after revised schedules were presented on Aug. 27. He added that routing revisions were also accommodated to five runs.
“We expect to reorganize our efforts going forward to reduce the amount of changes at the start of the school year. We accomplished a lot in a short amount of time and many of the runs appeared to be on schedule,” he said. “First Student has been both responsible and dedicated in responding to the needs of regular and special education students, and they should be commended.”
O’Haire said additional changes will be forthcoming.
Ferrucci added, “This is not something that is going on the shelf until next year; we plan on proactive involvement in the process in an effort to make it better.”
Bill Roach, Warwick area general manager for First Student, said First Student is operating 49 large buses, 29 special education buses and 10 statewide, or RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education), buses, for a total of about 90 routes in Warwick. He said in order to take on operations in Warwick, manpower was increased by 161, with 29 additional drivers and 27 aides. All drivers received 43 hours of driver training before actually picking up students. He said positions were offered to former Warwick employees, but only two took advantage of it. Also added to the ranks were a full-time dispatcher, a maintenance attendant and a service attendant.
Roach pointed out that the 29 special education buses service 527 students, which equates to about 18 students per bus.
“Steve is working effectively and efficiently,” he said, referring to O’Haire.
School Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Maloney said he became extremely concerned when he started receiving phone calls and emails on the first day of school, saying there was no communication between schools and buses when students weren’t showing up on time, especially after being promised bus drivers would be equipped with cell phones and able to be in contact with schools and the department.
“I spent a few days looking into it and I learned a lot,” Maloney said. “I learned that the communication was happening but it wasn’t going to the right place.”
Toll Gate Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz said this was his best school opening in the eight years he’s been at Toll Gate.
“We have so many buses at Toll Gate, sometimes you’d think you were at Gillette Stadium. We had one major problem and I called Mr. [Dennis] Mullen [Secondary Education Director], who called Mr. O’Haire, he’s always been there for me, and it was taken care of right away,” Chrabaszcz said. “We have thousands of students going in between buses and we can’t have that, so they were told they need to line up, and there hasn’t been a problem since. They [First Student and the transportation department] should be commended.”
Mary Townsend, a teacher’s assistant at Drum Rock Early Childhood Center and president of the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) union, thanked First Student for their hard work but said more training is needed.
“Not enough training was provided,” she said, adding that staff was handling equipment they shouldn’t have, such as wheelchairs, one of which was crashed into a bus. “That shouldn’t happen.”
School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado said she also received a number of calls and emails.
“With a district our size, we understand there will be some flies in the ointment, but as a parent, a community member and an elected official I appreciate the efficiency with which the transportation staff and the transportation provider responded to concerns,” she said.
Addressing school enrollment at the elementary level, Elementary Education Director Robert Bushell said kindergarten enrollment is down this year, adding he’s still chasing down some families and tracking other enrollment numbers, which he hopes to have finalized soon.
“It was a very smooth opening at the elementary level,” he said. “There were some concerns with the fire safety construction work and whether buildings would be ready, but there weren’t any problems and everything was cleaned and ready to go.”
At the secondary level, Mullen called it a fantastic opening.
“Scheduling issues were kept to a minimum at all schools, both senior high and junior high, and teachers and support staff solved any minor issues by working together,” he said.
As far as enrollment numbers, Mullen said enrollment has decreased by a total of 909 students at the junior and senior high levels over the past five years. He said the total secondary population as of Tuesday was 4,575.
Dr. Richard D’Agostino, director of Special Education, said he has 2,100 students with IEPs (Individualized Education Program) and his department is starting five new programs this year, but he hasn’t received any phone calls from parents or experienced any problems with the start of school.
“The only problem we had was some transportation issues, but they were addressed,” he said.
With nearly $3.3 million of fire safety construction improvements being made to eight schools over the summer, there was some concern about whether the work could be completed in time for the start of the school year.
Director of Buildings and Grounds David LaPlante thanked the custodial staff and WISE employees for their efforts to ensure schools were cleaned and ready to go and for working around the fire safety improvements.
“The amount of work done this summer and in cooperation with custodial staff and the cleaning of schools went extremely well,” he said. “The WISE union and custodial staff did a tremendous job, and it wouldn’t have been as smooth without them.”
Paul Jansson, assistant director of buildings and grounds, said fire safety construction sites were mobilized on June 22 and the work began on June 23.
“We were fortunate with unforeseen conditions resulting in change orders only amounting to 1 percent of the initial cost,” he said, which he attributed to the caliber of contractors working on the project. “Three excellent contractors were intent on getting the project done on time with us.”
Jansson said the work was completed in nine weeks. In addition to the fire safety improvements, as part of a three-year plan to bring buildings up to code, and the cleaning of schools, Jansson said the modernization of the elevator at Winman, which had not been working, was also completed and working for the first day of school.
“It was the busiest summer I’ve seen in the 12 years I’ve been here,” he said.
“For a project of that magnitude, which we had not seen before, the staff went above and beyond and you should be commended for the work you did, which was completed on time and on budget,” Furtado said. “There were some security concerns, but nothing went missing, and this will prepare you to go through this process again during the next two summers.”
Maloney added a special word of thanks for keeping the committee updated throughout the process with daily emails, which allowed him to answer questions when they arose.
Turning the committee’s attention to staffing, Rosemary Healy, director of human resources and legal counsel for the school department, said the department is fully staffed for the school year, with the exception of two key positions that need to be filled. Those positions include a budget analyst and a behavioral specialist, as the result of a resignation.
“It was an extraordinarily busy summer filling administrative positions, with several principal vacancies at the elementary and secondary level,” she said. “We’re now in the process of turning our attention to brining in substitutes and bus aides. We did quite well to ensure the staff was ready to start the school year.”