September 1, 2014
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EDITORIAL
Sometimes less is more

At last week’s Long Term Facilities Planning Committee meeting, a number of members, including Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino, expressed their surprise regarding the status of the district’s three high schools. The group toured all three schools to assist in their goal of recommending consolidation at the secondary level. Apparently, no building stands out as one that would be better for closing, not because they are all in good condition, but because they are in equally neglected condition.

Many committee members were surprised by the cosmetic needs of each building. Some admitted that it would be expected for a building to be in need of cleaning in May, but not in October.

This is something that the general public should take notice of. While each member of the committee brought different ideas to the table while preparing to discuss the closing of either Warwick Veterans Memorial or Pilgrim High School, such as location, structural needs and classroom size, they all appeared to be in agreement the schools have been neglected. Toll Gate isn’t on their list for possible closure, but was also visited and seen as in need of upkeep.

As being discussed, the plan would be to close both Aldrich and Gorton Junior High Schools, consolidating those students in whichever of the two high schools is closed for an overall projected savings of about $4.3 million annually.

Regardless of what the committee presents as their consolidation proposal to the School Committee in the coming months, it seems inevitable the public will come out in droves to argue that no high school should be closed, especially “their” school.

Obviously, a building that hosts at least 900 teenagers every day is not going to be in perfect condition all the time, but it has to mean something when the superintendent and 12 other adults are surprised by the cosmetic quality of the buildings (not to mention, concerns about technology, broken lockers and necessary structural improvements).

So do we fight to continue to operate three high schools and three junior highs in poor quality, while facing budget restraints? Or, do we rip off the Band-Aid and make the transition to two high schools and two junior highs for better quality buildings and programs?


Comments
6 comments on this item

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.

Thanks John, the more awareness given to the condition of the schools, the more hope for change. I am disappointed that the facility planning committee/superintendent were surprised at the condition given they have been on this committee (or in charge) for quite some time. They should give all the schools the same attention and they might realize that there is a real need for a comprehensive plan for all facilities across the system, not a bandaid solution to secondary schools. I agree, there are no clear "winners" in the poorest condition category, they are all subpar, the only advantage the high schools have is extra capacity and when making any consolidation plans, careful attention needs to be given to that one redeeming factor as school administrators, teachers, and students need to deal with the realities of the facility conditions everyday. When considering the optimal amount of students in any subpar building (which they have recognized all high schools to be), the condition of the building needs to be reconciled with the number of students, even in a temporary situation. I also wonder how the committee feels the reported condition to RIDE matches what they have seen firsthand. I believe the school department rated all buildings across the system, except Gorton and Aldrich (which were a 3), at 2, which is "good" condition. The reported feedback from the committee does not seem to match a "2" or "good" condition at the high school level, which leads to the next common sense question, what about the rest of the school system that was rated at "2"...especially some elementary schools which are have been filled to the max and in subpar condition...is this the fate of our high schools under the facility planning committee plans? Facilities in poor condition and crowded....a few countries come to mind, is that our goal?

Bob, I agree,the city needs to take ownership and responsibility in the school facilities but until the school department fully and responsibly recognizes and creates public awareness of the growing issues, the City will not be held accountable. Despite failed past attempts, the current facility planning process is the ideal vehicle try again

, and with the right process, the full scope of the problem could be identified. However, the school department continues to operate within the City's given limits instead of taking a big picture approach and insisting on the support it needs. The City continues to deny the importance of schools in the future vitality of Warwick which is very evident in the last draft of the Warwick Comprehensive Plan which minimally addresses any school contribution in the future of the City (despite repeated inquiries and pleas from both myself and others) I am very disappointed by both sides in that much could be done (even independently of each other) to foster public pressure for better collaboration. I do not know (on either side) whether it is inability or unwillingness, but as a resident, it is unacceptable and needs to change,

And, although it was a significant setback (and I applaud the school committee who recognized the need for facility improvements in 2006), the current condition of facilities are the result of decades of neglect, not years. It is not uncommon for older cities like Warwick to face these school infrastructure issues but what is unfortunate/less common is the inability/willingness for the school committee and city to address them today. It is not an easy/five year fix, it is a 20/30 year plan that makes it affordable and attainable and without the leadership to embrace and implement long term, coordinated, system change, Warwick will not sustain itself.

Jennifer if you study the Mayor's budget and attend the City Council budget hearing each year, over the past years you will understand how the political leaders in the city view the educational system in Warwick in two very different ways. Publically they will say how they value the school system and fully support it. You will see them attend open houses, special events, sporting events and graduation ceremonies so they will be noticed by the parents and the children as the elected leaders committed to the school system.

In reality most of them are hypercritics. When it comes to setting the budget for the city and the schools they take the easy way out by literally throwing schools under the proverbial bus. They don’t want to tackle the difficult issue in the city budget that are requiring more and more tax dollars each year because that would involve them having to do something about the unsustainable cost to fund employee retirement benefits and they do not want to anger the municipal unions that they count on to get re-elected.

It much easy to scrape goat the school department, publicly point fingers at the school budget and cut its budget. For example in 2012 the city cut almost $7 million from the school budget and also proposed new property and car taxes that increased local tax dollars to the city budget by an incredible $14.2 million. They literally took all the money cut from the school budget and transferred it to the city budget and took all the new property tax dollars and allocated it to the city budget.

Neither the general public or the parents of kids in the schools complained because most believed the Mayor and the City Council President when they stated that the School Committee’s budget was out of control and responsible of the new property taxes.

The only time those people will complain is if a proposal is made to cut school sports, then they will come out in masses to protest. Yet as the school building were neglected, they remained silence.

However the budget numbers do not lie. So if you really believe that the elected city leaders will actually come together with school leaders to develop a plan to support the schools, it’s not going to happen. That would require major reforms in the city budget.

Take a look at my analysis of the two budgets over the past ten years as proof of what I am stating.

Copy this link and paste it into your browser:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6P1sIPd4PTdTkI5WF9NM1pjVXM/edit?usp=sharing

Bob, I do understand and agree with you. The City needs to take ownership for the school facilities and make other budget adjustments or tax increases (and I would argue that better schools would lead to larger tax base) to fund them. I am not well versed in the City finances but I do understand/have experience in how solid planning can create awareness/buy-in and can actually facilitate change that seemed impossible prior to it. I would reference you to the development of Women & Infants Hospital, it went from a local birthing facility (Providence Lying In) to an international, state of the art medical facility for women's health. It accomplished this over just a couple of decades of visionary leadership, meticulous planning, and collaboration with many public and private entities. While I hold the City responsible for funding major improvements to the schools, I hold the school district responsible for providing the leadership and accurately assessing and planning for the improvements. Funding cannot begin to be discussed without the true needs identified and comprehensive, long term planning. The school district continues to operate and plan only within the City imposed financial limits instead of proactively identifying the true, comprehensive needs. The schools need to quantify their importance to the City and the impact better facilities would have, they need a long term vision for 21st century facilities and provide examples of the investment and return schools have on a city/town. Change needs to begin somewhere and a true vision/long term plan is the best place; without it, the schools will continue to "cope", the City will continue to ignore the schools, and all of us will suffer.

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