Committee to consider motion to postpone school consolidation

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What two mothers started as a drive to save their neighborhood school from closing this academic year has evolved into a campaign to shelve the larger elementary school consolidation plan because of conflicting data and state efforts directed at addressing aging school buildings across Rhode Island.

“I’ve fallen in love with John Brown Francis [School],” said Liz Gambuto in a noisy Palazzo’s Pizza Thursday night. Around her and Mary Martin, gathered at tables of four and five, parents, teachers, friends and a smattering of elected officials ate pizza and drank beer and soda. There was no speaking program and no agenda – although from the T-shirts and the clipboard with a petition, it was clear there is a shared goal to keep JBF School in Governor Francis from being re-purposed as the city’s early childhood education center.

Under the consolidation plan approved by the School Committee in 2016, the current center at the Toll Gate Educational Complex would become part of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center. In addition, the department would close John Wickes and Randall Holden Schools as of June 2018.

That could change, based on a motion by School Committee member Eugene Nadeau, to postpone implementation of the consolidation plan for two years. The motion will be heard at tonight’s meeting at Toll Gate High School. Nadeau voted for the plan in 2016, but in the last couple of months the Rhode Island Department of Education has released the results of a comprehensive look at all school buildings, arriving at the conclusion that $2 billion would be needed to upgrade all buildings to top standards. The Jacobs report also includes an “aspirational” standard of 180 square feet of building space per student for new school construction projects.

“I’m troubled that so much is happening so quickly,” Nadeau said Monday, “especially this bond. I want to do one thing at a time and do it well.”

As for consolidation, Nadeau said, “I don’t want to see any more mistakes made so we can be pilloried by the public. I don’t want that to happen.” Nadeau said his concern is for the entire system and his motion is not limited to John Brown Francis School.

While favoring delaying consolidation until there is clarity of what the state wants, Nadeau wants to move ahead with a middle school system with sixth grade being moved to Veterans and Winman next fall.

The “aspirational” standard is what school administrators question is affordable or, for that matter desirable. It dramatically increases the classroom space projected as needed for a simultaneously declining school enrollment. According to the $250,000 SMMA (Symmes, Manini and McKee Associates of Cambridge) study that the school committee used to base its consolidation plan, after elementary school consolidation the system would have the capacity to accommodate 5,025 elementary students. Currently, the system has 4,579 elementary students, including 681 6th graders, down from 4,656 last year, according to district records.

Declining enrollment

According to NESDEC, New England School Development Council, for 2018-19 elementary enrollment is projected at 4,570 and 4,549 for 2019-20. That would appear to be close to what the department needs for capacity. However, the plan calls for moving sixth graders into middle school next fall. Without 6th grade, the NESDEC number for K-5 enrollment is 3,932 for 2018-19.

What throws a wrench into these calculations is the “aspirational” standard. When that is applied, the current capacity for elementary students drops to 3,624, which under the administration’s current consolidation plan would still put Warwick above the state recommendations, even if the 6th graders are moved out of the elementary schools as planned.

In the bigger picture, the aspirational standard dramatically increases the approximately $85 million in school upgrades the department has identified and was prepared to propose as a bond issue. That amount leaps to $117.7 million, an amount Ferrucci said the committee plans to present to the City Council on Nov. 29.

These added costs include $3.7 million to renovate and keep Randall Holden Elementary open (a figure arrived at by taking approximately 60 percent of the state’s $5.8 million estimate to repair the school, as Ferrucci explained last month has more accurately reflected actual costs of state projections) plus $30 million for the cost of constructing two new elementary schools that adhere to RIDE’s capacity standards and bring them within the state expectations for total square footage in the district.

However, from Ferrucci’s perspective, the issue is what the community is prepared to pay, although the state may be more willing to accept the plan and pay its share (about 35 percent for Warwick based on the current formula) if its aspirational standards are met.

“The real question I’m asking, and the question that will be posed in front of the City Council on Nov. 29 is, ‘What can the community afford?’ It’s as simple as that,” Ferrucci said in an interview on Monday.

What he means is that the community, starting with the council, will have to decide if the city can afford the additional costs to achieve aspirational capacity – which, simplified, means ensuring that elementary schools have dedicated auditoriums, cafeterias, science facilities and rooms for the arts as opposed to multi-use spaces like they currently utilize – or if the city can only afford to focus on their original $85 million bond plan to renovate the existing schools to get them up to acceptable condition, which would benefit the highest number of students.

Superintendent Philip Thornton views the situation as a matter of having too many schools and too few students. In addition, he said in an interview Friday that consolidation at the elementary level is linked to moving sixth graders to the city’s two junior high schools, which are slated to become middle schools next September. He said the savings generated by consolation would be used to expand class offerings for sixth graders.

Of the elementary schools in the system, Thornton said Randall Holden, followed by JBF, have the lowest enrollment.

Martin and Gambuto, mothers of second graders at JBF, initiated the drive to save the school in September. Martin said she found herself asking, “Does anyone want to try to do something?” It wasn’t long before a group started meeting Thursday nights at the Warwick Library. The group has grown to include parents from other schools and, according to Vanessa Carnevale and her husband, Paul Renehan, who have become coordinators of the campaign dubbed Operation Falcon, gained the endorsement of elected officials representing Governor Francis Farms.

School Committee member Karen Bachus and Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley were in attendance at Thursday’s meeting. Carnevale said the effort to save JBF has the backing of Senator Michael McCaffrey, Rep. Joseph McNamara and School Committee member Eugene Nadeau.

She said a letter detailing inconsistencies in the plan to re-purpose JBF, including the cost of building renovations and future student population, was emailed to Thornton about two weeks ago without response. The group has also asked all members of the School Committee and the mayor to join the cause.

Wrong plan at wrong time

Carnevale argues the consolidation plan is “the wrong plan at the wrong time” and the School Committee needs to do due diligence with further analysis before proceeding. Furthermore, she said the community should be involved. She believes “a lot of factual data” is missing from the current plan, especially population projections.

“A lot of young families are not being counted,” she said.

Carnevale has looked at the state report and recognizes the suggestion that districts consider consolidation of smaller neighborhood schools into new and fewer larger elementary schools. She’s not opposed to the concept and feels that should be explored before proceeding down the current path, especially if it’s going to mean greater state funding.

“I would like to see John Brown Francis stay open as a community school. The goal is to provide the best possible education,” she said.

When the committee voted for the consolidation of elementary schools in October 2016, the closure of Wickes and Holden were projected to save $2,244,900 and avoid the $15,371,730 total cost of renovating the two buildings. The sixth grade transition was projected to cost $1,770,000.

Carnevale acknowledged with the protracted teacher contract dispute there has been “a lot of strife” in the system. She feels there is distrust of the school administration and “parents don’t believe they have a voice in this.”

The group has not asked Thornton or members of the administration to attend their meetings.

Thornton did not recall receiving an email from Carnevale. He said he tries to respond to all emails posing questions.

Thornton noted development of the consolidation plan was a lengthy process involving numerous meetings and hearings over more than two years. The bottom line, he said, “we still have too many schools.”

As for the motion to reconsider the consolidation plan before the committee tonight, Thornton does not see the administration giving a presentation or recapping the reasoning for the school closures. He imagines that will be discussed by committee members and voted on.

As for the bond issue, Thornton acknowledges the aspiration standards set by RIDE push up the projected costs. He said that RIDE has asked Warwick to reconcile its projections. “They want us to push back.”

Ultimately, he said, the decision rests with the community on what it feels it can afford.

Comments

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patientman

A group of dedicated stakeholders spent a great deal of time to come up with a thoughtful, comprehensive school consolidation. Selfish special interest groups blocked that. So we spent $250,000 for a study conducted by a professional firm.They came up with largely the same plan. The school board and the city council needs to look past the selfish, myopic and harmful people trying to further damage the city.

5 days ago
davebarry109

“I’ve fallen in love with John Brown Francis [School],” I don't care. We need to put the taxpayer first. School consolidation is long overdue. Stop wasting taxpayer dollars because you love JBF. The city is a business. Your kid can get the same education in another building. Special interests, such as your feelings, don't count.

5 days ago
Justanidiot

One big warehouse. K-12. Keep them off the streets until they become adults. It is what we do now except that we operate a myriad of different buildings. One building. And it could be modern with heat and AC so schools can run 365 days a year.

5 days ago
Kammy

It feels like the consolidation review has been going on for quite a few years. I remember being at the meetings when they were working on the high schools and at that time it was very clear that the elementary schools would need to do the same. I can completely understand loving your local school and having your child enjoy the building and teachers, however, that simply isn't an argument for keeping the schools. The bottom line, as written above, remains the same - We have too many schools. Let's look at this problem as adults and professionals and do what is best for the many, not the few.

5 days ago
LifeLongWarwick

Davebarry109, you should educate yourself. If you are concerned about the taxpayer then you would realize that this plan, or lack there of, is going to request $85-$117M from the group you are most concerned about, the taxpayer. This amount of money SHOULD require a well defined, robust, fullproof plan. The SC doesn’t have that. If you are FOR moving this forward and you “don’t care” about these concerned taxpayers then you will soon come to understand how this will negatively impact you as a taxpayer and the future of the city.

5 days ago
LifeLongWarwick

patientman, you also need to educate yourself. If you fully understand the waste that has gone into this process you might have a different perspective. You probably are not even aware that the architecture firm you (the city) paid $250k to is no longer involved, you (the city) will now pay another architect to pick up from where the original left off (likely causing much duplication and differing of opinion between the original firm and the new one = waste). I don’t believe a group of concerned taxpayers, understanding the need to consolidate and run the city like a proper business, being referred to as selfish, myoptic and harmful is accurate. I would invite you to read the current plan, RIDE standards and proposed changes (and resulting impact to our students). You will see that a movement to slow down and ensure the best plan is being implemented is the only option. Members of the school committee, city council, state reps and state senators all agree, this is the wrong plan at the wrong time.

5 days ago
patientman

The consolidation of elementary schools can move in parallel with an evolving school construction plan. Keeping schools open because it's convenient for parents is ridiculous.

4 days ago
davebarry109

LIFELONGWARWICK...Slow down? Slow down? The person who used to be in charge of school facilities stated in a public hearing TEN YEARS AGO that we should have already been consolidating back then. In fact, he said TEN YEARS AGO that the city was about 7 years behind. THAT IS SEVENTEEN YEARS of delay. And you want more so your little precious can attend JBF? Millions wasted by crybaby parents with no concern for the tax payers. Yikes. 19000 students down to 9000 and dropping and we have (with benefidts) 100,000.00 school teachers. Slow down? I think not. It's time for drastic, rapid change.

4 days ago
LifeLongWarwick

Davebarry109, I will agree with you when you have factual information to back your argument. Also I am not advocating for JBF in my remarks, I am advocating for a proper plan. Your argument is based on some guy 10 years ago. I assure you this is the wrong plan. The unfortunate reality is the plan will likely be approved, move forward and the city will question “why” in 5 years from now. Taxpayers will want to know why we can’t do what’s needed in the city, why we don’t have programs we need for the children, why why why as our taxes increase. Is this the plan you are on board with? Your answer should be “i don’t know” because that’s the thing, nobody does. The plan is half baked, so yes, slow down and make sure what you (the city) are about to ask the taxpayers to do and pay for for the next 5/10/20 years is the right plan. I am not against consolidation, just against seeing secondary consolidation take 2. If you are not persuaded by me then make sure you vote yes for the $85M-$120M bond next November because if that doesn’t pass in full, the city schools will implode

4 days ago
Bob_Cushman

Here are excepts from my final statement as Chairman of the School Committee almost 11 years ago regarding the need for consolidation of schools. No more delays, consolidation must move forward.

http://warwickonline.com/stories/op-ed-prospective-on-the-warwick-school-department,25042?

Published January 11, 2007

[City and school spending must be cut. The superintendent along with the new school committee must be willing to make the tough choices and reduce school spending. The following are a few preliminary thoughts I have on how the department can reduce its budget in the next fiscal year. I hope these suggestions will serve as a means to provoke additional cost saving ideas from leaders throughout the city.

With some type of expansion of T.F. Green Airport likely, leading to the loss of homes and reduced student population around the airport and referencing the May 15, 2006 New England School Development Council report to the school department documenting the projected decrease in Warwick student enrollment of 1,028 students or 8.9% from 2005 through 2010, school leaders must make the difficult decision to cut costs by consolidating elementary schools.

I believe Wicks Elementary School is one of the schools that must be closed. In addition, a redistricting program must be implemented immediately to better smooth student population around the airport and provide better utilization of existing elementary schools for the start of the 2007/2008 academic year.

Potowomut Elementary School cannot continue to operate with an under utilized population of students. The school district must better utilized this school and other schools in the district by either increasing the student population through the redistricting process, establishing citywide programs in the schools, for example, in the area of out of district special education services, and/or developing collaborative programs with neighboring school districts. If these measures cannot be undertaken then some of these schools, including Potowomut, should be closed by next fall.

The antiquated, confined building on Warwick Lake Avenue is not conducive to the central administrative functions necessary to run the school department. Plans should be developed to move these offices into the vacated Wicks Elementary School building by next year. The facilities in this building would be suitable for administrative and support staff offices and the auditorium ideal for conducting school committee and other school related organizational meetings. Professional development seminars for teachers could also be held in the building.

......

The "monarchy attitude" prevalent in schools and municipal government must cease. Warwick can no longer afford to run individual city and school departments, with similar administrative functions, like medieval fiefdoms where it is taboo to share resources or work collaboratively.

To save jobs, union leaders must be willing to eliminate restrictive language in contracts so services can be optimized while reducing cost.

The city council and mayor must work to coordinate employee benefit packages throughout all departments in the city and in schools so they do not become a road block to consolidation.

Staffing at all levels throughout the school department and city departments must be reduced. It is time city and school departments adopt the philosophy of "doing more with less".]

3 days ago
Kammy

LifeLongWarwick, let's just call a spade a spade here. If it were any other school besides JBF the consolidation wouldn't be an issue. The article from 11/16/2017 (http://warwickonline.com/stories/committee-tables-motion-delay-school-consolidation,129423) states:

"The attempts to stop the consolidation plan, which was approved by the committee in 2016, have heated up recently through a grassroots initiative known as Operation Falcon – a group comprised primarily of parents of students at John Brown Francis (JBF) and joined by Ward 1 City Councilman Richard Corley – who argue that community schools like JBF are essential cogs in the machinery of their neighborhoods."

Now, you may state that you agree with the delay because you find it half-baked. That may well be true, however, it was approved in 2016 and moving forward until the most recent actions of Operation Falcon. This is being held up because people don't want to lose their elementary school. Period. No one is looking at the financial issues. This is purely emotional.

3 days ago