Schools look on track for next phase of improvements

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It was a long wait, and the school administration and School Committee will be back again to come before the full City Council, but Monday night the council’s Finance Committee recommended the release of bond funds for the next round of school improvements.

The committee voted unanimously for favorable action on the release of $9,836,403 from the $40 million school bond approved by Warwick voters at the polls last November.

About a dozen school officials – including principals, administrators, members of the School Committee and Warwick Teacher Union President Darlene Netcoh – were in the audience soon after the committee started deliberations at 5 p.m. Superintendent Philip Thornton said it had been suggested he be there early to make the department’s presentation.

He needn’t have worried.

It wasn’t until nearly six hours later before the committee completed its review of the tentative agreement between the administration and the Warwick Firefighters and called on the schools to make their presentation. As committee chair Ed Ladouceur quickly observed, the presentation was no different from the outline provided to the council last month.

The construction projects to be undertaken under Phase II include seven fire alarms, thus completing all fire alarm requirements at a cost of $815,795; $583,195 for continuation of asbestos abatement at five schools; $2,549,000 for 13 ADA compliance projects; $1,050,000 for five elementary school playgrounds; and $3,194,247 for the roofs of four schools. This totals $8.2 million. Additionally, $92,000 is earmarked in soft costs for design and engineering and another $1.5 million in soft costs in order to assess and design project plans in preparation of bid documents for the next round of projects to be undertaken in 2021-22.

Thornton came prepared not only with a breakdown of the projects to be undertaken but also a line-by-line accounting of when each is scheduled and its projected cost. He made sure to have enough copies for the audience, as well.

It’s the kind of attention to the numbers that Finance Committee members like and which has built trust between the council and the committee. School Committee Chair Karen Bachus, along with Thornton, were ready to take questions.

One uncertainty is planned improvements for Pilgrim High School, which City Council President Steve Merolla noted has been cited by the accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, as being close to not meeting required standards.

Topping the list in terms of cost at Pilgrim is an HVAC system at $8 million. As there is discussion about building a new high school, which will soon be reviewed by consultants, Merolla questioned if the department planned to move ahead with the improvements.

Thornton said the Pilgrim improvements would be delayed if it appeared the committee moved ahead with a new school. In order for a school bond to appear on the ballot, it would need approvals by the Rhode Island Department of Education, the City Council and the General Assembly. That appears impossible to line up in time for the issue to appear on the November 2020 ballot. This means voter consideration of a new school bond would have to wait for a special election in 2021 or the next general election in 2022. Building the school could take another two years, thus pushing a new school off five years if not more.

Thornton said the administration would closely watch developments so as to ensure improvements weren’t made at Pilgrim only to have the school closed in a few years. Funding set aside for Pilgrim improvements could therefore step up the schedule for other school improvements. In the long run, the funds saved could go toward the new school.

While the Finance Committee is recommending the release of the $9.8 million, the bonds issued would total $6,854,403, said Thornton. He explained the department plans to take advantage of the state’s “pay as you go” capital improvement program. Rather than waiting until improvements are fully completed, under the program at a 35 percent state and 65 percent city split, the state would pay its share of the invoices without delay, thereby reducing the city’s need to incur bond indebtedness.

School finance officer Anthony Ferrucci said Tuesday that 90 percent of the work scheduled under Phase 1 has been completed on time and on budget. He said work identified for the two high schools has been delayed pending a resolution over construction of a new school. Should the community not move ahead with a new high school, he said the Pilgrim HVAC project would be scheduled for the work to start in the summer of 2022.

While Merolla expressed concerns over the city’s ability to meet rising costs – an issue he hammered when the committee reviewed the tentative Warwick Firefighters contract – he made a point that the community has failed to invest in schools. He noted that the city hasn’t built a new school in the past 30 years while during that time four fire stations were built. The inference firefighters hold the political clout to get what they want was not missed by the audience, which was comprised predominantly of firefighters.

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