This is going to sound like heresy. But I have to come out and say that the Warwick Public Schools are facing a crisis. These are the schools that made me, where I spent 12 years of my life. From where I graduated valedictorian in 1993. From where I went on to an Ivy League college and then law school. Where my sisters went to school, where my niece and nephew go to school. Where my older daughter is in fourth grade and where my younger daughter will start first grade next year, because I choose to live in Warwick and because I choose to send my kids to public school. Where I met my wife. Where my mother teaches. I love this place and our school system.
But we are in a crisis. One that has been decades in the making. Our city’s schools were, by and large, built or retooled with the haste and energy accompanying the boom of the ’50s and ’60s that made Warwick a singularly popular place for middle-class Rhode Island parents to raise their kids. And, as is normal for public infrastructure, we have lived for decades off of that build-out. When I entered the Warwick Public Schools in 1981, many of our schools were still relatively new by public infrastructure standards. But then the building, for the most part, stopped. And then the problems of aging infrastructure started. And then the issues of infrastructure technology mounted. And now we find ourselves in the second decade of the 21st century with no plan other than Band-Aid fixes to the problem of educating our kids in dilapidated “Leave It To Beaver” facilities. Where, in many classrooms, you can’t even see out the windows.
Here is why our aging school infrastructure is a crisis.
First, the longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost to address. That’s just the nature of deferred maintenance.
Second, the longer we wait, the more kids we’re going to pass through junky buildings. They deserve more.
Third, we’re in a phase of school closure and consolidation, which is the right time to address infrastructure improvements. Otherwise, we will not have the flexibility to do what’s needed at the lowest cost, and we’ll let the closures happen with no attendant benefits to our kids or our community.
Fourth, if we don’t adopt a plan now, families are going to stop being attracted to Warwick as a place that is proactive about top-rate, sustainable educational facilities. Our tax base will shrink, and then we’ll be without the revenue to dig ourselves out of this hole. Ask around: Do you know anyone moving to Warwick because the schools are in good shape? How about North Kingstown?
I am here for the long haul. I grew up here, and though I work away, I live here because I want to. I have two kids, but they are too old to enjoy the benefits of any serious school reconstruction. Even a fast-tracked program will not realize new facilities while they are in the Warwick Public Schools. So I have nothing to gain here personally, other than the firm belief that whatever we spend on new school facilities today will come back to us in sustainable tax burdens over the course of time. And whatever we don’t invest now, we’ll pay anyway as our tax base dwindles for failure to offer appropriate educational facilities for our city’s kids. And I want to take pride in the schools where our city sends its kids.
So here is what we should do.
For secondary education, we should commit now to building one new junior and senior high school complex for all kids in grades 6 through 12 by the year 2025. In my view, that complex should be built on the Warwick Vets property, so that it can attach to the municipal recreation complex and library as a center of recreation and education for the city. It would include a large auditorium for general city use as well as school use, it would contain the offices of school administration, and it would create other synergies for municipal resources. It would be a building geared toward the needs of 2050, not 1950. At the same time, we should continue to rationalize the elementary schools to the current and future population, but we should not depart from the overall model of neighborhood elementary education that has been a prized hallmark of Warwick Public Schools. We can likely re-purpose the existing elementary facilities rather than start from scratch, but we will need to move kids around quite a bit as we rebuild one school and close down the next. I’m not sure of the number, but I expect by 2025 we would end up with a total of 10 elementary schools, all new or rebuilt.
This will cost a ton of money and require a heavy commitment by Warwick’s residents and businesses. But it’s necessary if Warwick is going to survive as the city we know and love. And in the long-term, it will pay the same type of dividends that we have long enjoyed from the investments of the last century.
I don’t have all the answers, and I am quite sure there are other possible solutions. But I am also quite sure that no good solution is based on minor improvement, rather than major overhaul. And I am also quite sure that no good solution is currently percolating within the interim school administration. Yet, I am sure that with the new leadership that I can only hope is on its way, we will have a team both capable of and motivated toward the New Warwick Public Schools. As my Pilgrim soccer coach Cal Bowden would say, let’s get this done.