On Monday evening the Warwick City Council stayed a vote on a resolution forwarded by Mayor Scott Avedisian, sponsored by Ward 8 councilman Joseph Gallucci, on behalf of the Warwick School Department to approve plans for an $85 million bond to repair the direst needs of schools throughout the city.
The council will reconvene for another special meeting on Jan. 30 at 6:00 p.m. to make a final decision on whether or not to move the bond forward.
Council president Joseph Solomon declared it would be impossible for the council to vote on the measure in good faith, as bond counsel for the city Karen Grande was not available and no one else from the city administration was present or prepared to answer questions pertaining to the total realized cost of the bonds for taxpayers, and there was no document outlining more information about the bond attached to the resolution, despite the resolution stating:
“Be it further resolved, the City Solicitor, working with Bond Counsel for the City of Warwick, ensure that the appropriate legislation in substantially the form attached hereto is submitted in a timely manner to the Rhode Island General Assembly to ensure that all requirements are met to ensure consideration of this question by the electors.”
“How are we to act on a legislation without answers to what the legislation refers to as being attached – there’s nothing attached to my document,” Solomon said.
Frustrations mounted all evening during the course of the three-hour meeting, as the school department reiterated points about the city’s many schools that are in desperate need of crucial repairs. The $85 million would comprise $31,574,199 towards the secondary schools (including the current and future Career and Tech Centers) and the remainder going to all 13 elementary schools and one Pre-K facility. Bond funds would not go toward either Wickes or Randall Holden Schools that are slated to close this year.
The repairs included within the scope of the bond include top priority items such as roof replacements, interior and exterior structural repairs, plumbing, ADA improvements, HVAC system replacements and asbestos abatements.
“We have to take care of ADA, we have to take care of fire alarms, we have to take care of roofs and take the water out, we have to put the heating in,” said school finance director Anthony Ferrucci. “So what we have presented to you are actually all priority one items.”
To drive home the point of the bond, Superintendent Philip Thornton brought in various parts of malfunctioning systems from schools throughout the district, some of which are 50 years old despite having a life expectancy of only 30 years, and displayed them for the members of the council.
“We are at a crossroads with regard to our schools,” Thornton said. “We do need to take action. To not do so will only compound the problems we have in the coming years.”
However certain members of the council made their wariness and unfavorable opinion of the bond clear, as they had expressed in previous meetings as well.
“When I hear and when I see parts, I think repair, I don’t think capital improvement,” said Ward 9 councilman Steve Merolla. “I just don’t know that a Band-Aid approach and replacing an AC, or whatever – even though we need it, and things need to be done – in the big picture is the direction that the community needs and is going to generate an enthusiasm for education in Warwick.”
Others, like Ward 5 councilman Ed Ladouceur, have been vocal about their preference towards taking the favorable reimbursement rates being offered by the state – currently at about 40 percent, with the ability to go up to 50 percent should a state bond referendum be passed by voters in November – and using the opportunity to build a new school to reinvigorate the community and generate renewed enthusiasm.
“There’s a reason for the exodus and a reason people are not coming back into the city,” Ladouceur said. “We need to stop sending good money after bad…Some of these schools are beyond repair, and they need to be torn down. So why don’t we just face the facts and admit what the reality is?”
“If we as a community, if we want people to come back here and we want people to stay here, we need to rejuvenate our reputation for a community that has an outstanding educational system,” he continued.
Ferrucci argued that focusing efforts on building new would simply prolong the major issues at a majority of the schools, and that the bond as requested will do the most good for the most students for a long enough period of time to further address the state of disrepair in the district.
“We believe we have done our due diligence,” Ferrucci said. “We believe $85 million to fix all 20 schools while servicing 8,853 students and 1,480,000 square feet of space is the most effective, fiscally efficient proposal that we think will last this community decades.”
Solomon suggested going out for half of the proposed bond now, and doing another half two years later, arguing that “There’s no reason to hit the credit card for the full amount today.”
Ferrucci replied that such a situation would put the schools and school department into an unfair situation.
“If you cut it in half, you have to end up determining who gets something and who does not,” he said.
The Jan. 30 continuance of the meeting will be the ultimate deciding factor towards whether or not major school repairs can be accomplished within the next year, as the bond would have to be put on a referendum for Warwick voters to approve or deny.
The school department must submit its Stage 2 application to the Rhode Island Department of Education – with city council approval – by Feb. 1 if it is to make this year’s deadline for state funding reimbursement, and for it to be placed on the ballot for voters during this year’s election.
Thornton addressed criticism of the bond by the council and why he believed the bond is the best course of action for the city during an interview on Tuesday.
“I think some councilors were saying if we had done preventative maintenance all along we wouldn’t be here in 2018. I would say that's a faulty argument,” Thornton said. “We're talking about systems that are 50 years old in some cases that are long past they’re useful quality of life. Preventative maintenance is certainly part of what we need to do, however it cannot take the place of replacing outdated systems when they need replaced.
“I think we've had many meetings on these topics over the year and I think we have a clear direction,” he continued. “That's what we're committed to doing at this point.”