Report reveals $190 million in school deficiencies
School administrators are hopeful that securing an $85 million bond to address some of the district’s most glaring needs is more likely now that the statewide report by Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. has been released, providing a third party, impartial assessment that approximately $190 million-worth of work is needed to bring Warwick’s public schools into the modern era of safety and efficiency.
“It is validating to hear that they do concur that we need attention to the schools. It’s been decades of deferred maintenance and it really is time to have some action,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton. “Last year the council wanted to see the final report from Jacobs before they acted…They really wanted to see validation, and now we have validation.”
Jacobs assessed each school in each district based on five priorities of needs, with Priority 1 being the “Mission Critical Concerns” that include the direst issues that need to be addressed to ensure the school can remain operating in a safe, code-compliant manner, such as replacing a fire alarm system.
In Warwick, about 70 percent of the deficiencies were defined by Jacobs as either Priority 3 (short-term conditions) issues such as site improvements and plumbing deficiencies, or Priority 4 (long-term requirements) issues such as paint finishing, removal of old equipment and installation of ancillary items such as cabinets.
While Thornton and Finance Director Tony Ferrucci said that Jacobs’ financial estimate for how much the district needs to reinvigorate the schools was close to their own assessment, the two sides have differing opinions on what needs constitute what level priority.
“Primarily I think we agree on most areas,” said Ferrucci. “We’re looking at things like [required] power for instructional purposes. They have that as a lower level of priority. We also put more of a priority on the building envelope – like replacing windows and doors where there’s cold air that penetrates the building, and putting up new windows, newer doors, eliminating the drafts and looking to reduce operational costs. That drove our prioritization.”
Ferrucci said that the Jacobs report validated the need to renovate the auditorium at Pilgrim, which it identified as a Priority 3 need. Simultaneously, Ferrucci said that project also illustrated how the Jacobs Report may come to cost estimates that don’t fully align with what Warwick actually winds up paying.
“Jacobs said that was a $1.1 million project and we did it for $600,000,” he said. “I look at the Jacobs Report as a separate, independent validation of what we’re doing more than anything.”
Ferrucci also made the disclaimer that the projected deficiencies do not include any recent updates the school department has made to its buildings – like the $8.6 million HVAC and electrical improvements made at Vets and the fire alarm system replacement at Holliman Elementary – because the engineers for Jacobs visited the schools around March of 2016. Two summers of renovation work has passed since then.
“We will be filing updates as to what’s been accomplished and they’re supposed to then recalculate and generate the numbers based on our impact on our buildings,” Ferrucci said.
“I think they’re more than willing to meet and correct things,” concurred Thornton. “It’s a working document.”
One statistic from the report that seemed alarming was the fact that, of the 724 total instructional spaces in Warwick, only 23.2 percent met or exceeded the new space size standards set by the state.
Thornton explained that this standard is known as an “aspirational standard” that doesn’t take into account the fact that older buildings may not have been built with dedicated spaces for auditoriums, cafeterias, music and art rooms and gymnasiums – which is a requirement for new school construction.
“Buildings built back in the day may have had a cafetorium,” Thornton said. “And now you have not met the standard. So when you apply a 2017 aspirational standard to an old building, it looks like you’re overpopulating the building when you’re really not.” Thornton said that if the aspirational standards were enforced, Norwood Elementary – which has 280 students – would only be allowed to have 130 students.
Now it will remain to be seen whether or not the Warwick City Council – which wanted to see the results of the Jacobs Report prior to approving the bond request – will approve the request this time around. Should that happen, it is too late for the issue to appear on the upcoming November ballot, and would have to wait until November of 2018.
On top of the new report, councilors have had extended opportunities to view the deficiencies and areas of need within the schools for many weeks now, as Thornton has been leading tours through the buildings to highlight the need for improvements across the district. Tours are scheduled on Wednesday. This week they will be at Wyman (3:30), Norwood (4:15) and Francis Elementary Schools (5:00). Tours of Vets and Lippitt will be held the following Wednesday at 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. respectively.
“We want the information to get out,” he said, adding that councilors and legislators can ask for private tours whenever they’d like. “People can make their own judgments on what they see.”
Ferrucci said that, between an earlier assessment from Symmes Maini & McKee Associates that estimated a need for about $220 million to fix the district schools and with the Jacobs Report now completed, the district has a clear and objective picture of what needs to be accomplished, which is the first step in trying to fix the problems that need addressed.
“We all concur that we’re only doing about half of what the district needs and that’s coming in at 85 to 90 million dollars,” he said. “So I think the macro level is, yeah, they’re all synchronized to the level of need that the community is facing here.”