The Warwick School Department received unanimous approval from the Warwick City Council Monday night to release about $6.2 million in bond funding to initiate the first phase of crucial construction projects that are set to begin this summer.
Those projects will include six repairs or replacements of fire alarm systems, three roofing projects, interior lock work to be conducted at all schools, asbestos abatement at two elementary schools, improving ADA access at Cedar Hill Elementary and constructing ADA-accessible playgrounds at two elementary schools.
A full list of construction projects outlined within the first phase of bond funding – which will be updated as contracts are awarded and work is initiated and completed – is available for public viewing on the Warwick Public Schools website by looking under “Departments,” “Business, Finance & Operations Office,” and then clicking on the “Bond Funded Capital Projects 2018-2023” link.
“We all know that this work needs to be done and that it's long overdue,” said finance committee chairman and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur during questioning of the school department. “So, I guess now it's going to be kind of test driving a new vehicle. We're going to give it a run for a test drive and see where we end up at the end of that particular drive.”
If a “test drive” seems indicative that Ladouceur was not immediately trusting of the school department and their plans to utilize $40 million of voter-approved bond funding to begin work on school construction in the district – which private firm SMMA estimated numbered $238 million and the statewide Jacobs Report estimated at $190 million – that is because he was not outwardly trusting.
“I have concerns about this and how this is going to roll out,” Ladouceur said.
And he wasn’t the only one.
City Council President Steve Merolla expressed his frustration with how the last school bond – a $26 million bond approved in 2006 – was ultimately frozen for several years before much of that funding was eventually put towards fire prevention measures necessitated by the Station Nightclub Fire, rather than the long list of building improvements originally intended.
“It's very frustrating because some of the issues we're talking about on this new bond are issues leftover because the old bond referendum was frozen and the money had to be used for other reasons,” Merolla said. “I don't foresee that you'll do anything other than what's on your list…My concern is, if you come to us next year at this point, what do we have as a check and balance to make sure we're on the same page?”
Superintendent Philip Thornton pointed to the aforementioned master list that will be available to see on the district’s website, and added that the council will be receiving updates on every contract approval and as projects progress. The schools will also meet annually to provide a summary on projects and whether they have been completed on, under or over budget.
“You have my word on that,” Thornton told Merolla.
Ladouceur was critical that the school department had not gone to bid yet for the projects in question at the time of Monday night’s meeting, an indication, he said, that the city council was not truly holding up the operations of the school department as had been claimed in the past.
“I take offense to that,” Ladouceur said. “Because approved or not approved this evening, you folks at this moment have not gone out for bid for the work out there…If there's delays, those delays have nothing to do with the city council.”
Thornton maintained on Tuesday evening that the approval to release funds was a critical part of the normal process for getting capital projects approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) in a timely manner that would not trigger additional expenses from contractors, and to be eligible for the 38 percent reimbursement that Warwick is currently entitled to (though that rate could climb to as high as 50 percent if Warwick fulfills certain RIDE incentives through its choice of projects).
“Right now we are lined up to get the work out, bid, awarded and finished over the summer,” Thornton said, noting that some interior projects – like updating locks – may creep into the fall or winter months.
The other big point of criticism from the council was in regards to what happened to operational savings that the school department realized from closing two junior high schools, two elementary schools and re-purposing two others into a middle school and a preschool between 2015 and this current school year.
Thornton said on Tuesday that in both consolidation cases – the closing of Aldrich and Gorton Junior High Schools and the transformation of Warwick Veterans High School into a junior high, and the recent closing of Randall Holden and John Wickes Elementary Schools and re-purposing of John Brown Francis into the new Early Childhood Learning Center – the savings realized went to optimizing student experience and programming rather than building improvements.
“I think in some folks' minds maybe there are savings to be had to expend on projects, but we had a lot of issues,” he said, noting that in 2015-16, the schools incorporated all-day kindergarten and added social workers and math interventionists while also receiving a zero budget increase.
In this recent consolidation effort, the closing of schools made way for the first year of a fully functional middle school model, which Thornton said is more costly because it requires more student instructors and more comprehensive busing. They also added middle school sports and a one-to-one Chromebook initiative for the secondary level within that span.
“On both occasions we reinvested the closure funds on programming for kids,” Thornton said, adding that they were able to incorporate all the aforementioned changes while receiving just $14,000 additional in funding from 2010 levels.
“I think that's pretty good in terms of spending year over year,” he said.
In terms of a budget hit for Warwick taxpayers, finance director Brian Silvia said paying purely interest on the first couple years of the bond would allow for the lowest budgetary impact – $133,000 after state reimbursement for the first year, due in next year’s budget, not the upcoming budget – until principal and interest payments as a whole decrease significantly by $1.1 million in 2022.
Merolla spoke at length in response to comments recently made by former Mayor Scott Avedisian, who shifted blame onto the city council for not adequately funding schools after he was criticized in Mayor Joseph Solomon’s State of the City address.
“There's revisionist history in the press recently about what the council members didn't do. I can tell you what this council member did. He sat on a committee, not only on that bond but the bond before it, and authorized $26 million only to have the Avedisian administration freeze it, and then release it over time so that the last time it was released was in 2018, some almost decade and a half after it was approved by the citizens of Warwick, the school department finally gets their money,” he said. “But no, we're going to get blamed by somehow not funding school repairs or improvements. I've had it with trying to re-write history.”
Thornton, meanwhile, was looking ahead rather than in the past, maintaining optimism Tuesday that the capital improvements will be a positive step forward for the district.
“Surely, there's a historical context in Warwick on how things were done and whether or not they were done to everybody's satisfaction,” he said. “I'm confident moving forward that we have a good system in place to make sure everyone knows that what we're doing is what we said we're going to do.”