Differences of opinion, or misunderstandings of city policy – depending on whom you ask – regarding how schools recycle or dispose of unneeded furniture and materials sparked another dispute between Warwick Public School administrators and members of the public, some running for school committee, who believe desks found in a dumpster outside a school constituted a blatant waste of resources.
“This furniture is out for disposal behind Randall Holden Elementary School,” wrote Kyle Adams, candidate for the District 1 school committee seat, on a post Sunday evening to his campaign Facebook page, which he shared with the more popular page “Let’s Save Warwick Schools” that showed chairs and desks, among other debris, in a red dumpster. “Most of it is still in good condition and could likely be used at many schools within the district. This is the kind of waste I would like to address if I am elected to the Warwick School Committee.”
Outrage abounded on the post, with members of the online community decrying the apparent waste of school resources.
“We've read about classes where kids rush to call to be able to get a decent chair to sit on. We've read about a kid taking his chair along when getting up to sharpen a pencil so he wouldn't lose it,” commented Donna Bedrosian Adam on the post. “Throwing functional furniture away is totally inexcusable. There is no way to justify this waste.”
However, according to Superintendent Philip Thornton, finance director Anthony Ferrucci and documents provided by Camely Machado, coordinator of non-instructional services for the school department, the district followed a clear policy on recycling/disposal of its materials to the letter, and every school in the district – as well as municipal officials – had the opportunity to sift through the pickings prior to anything being thrown away.
“We step by step followed the process to the letter. We are following the city ordinance on this disposal process,” said Thornton on Monday morning. “We are absolutely an open book on this process.”
The four-step process goes like this:
1.) Cycle unused, good-conditioned materials throughout the district and remove what it damaged, obsolete or no longer needed;
2.) Notify the City Council that city departments have two weeks to pick through excess materials;
3.) Extend the offer of items to private schools and nonprofits;
4.) Sell or dispose of the remaining materials
In response to the online accusations of waste, the schools provided documentation showing that, starting this spring, surplus educational materials were being tagged that could potentially be re-used elsewhere in the district – and that this process is still continuing.
“Any items in the dumpster are categorized as junk, which means, ‘Property repair or rehabilitation to use for the originally intended purpose is clearly impractical repair for any use would exceed 65 percent of the original acquisition cost. Material that has no value except for its basic material content,’” wrote Catherine Bonang, secretary to the superintendent’s office, in an email.
The Gorton Administration Building cafeteria had been used as a catching point for excess education materials throughout the district, which closed two more elementary schools (Wickes and Randall Holden) and re-purposed another, John Brown Francis, over the summer, resulting in large amounts of excess materials including everything from desks and chairs to sets of bingo cards and VCRs.
The full list of these materials located within Gorton, including a categorization of their state of repair – from “good,” meaning needing no repairs, to “poor,” which means the item is in bad shape but still usable enough to keep it from being scrapped – was sent to principals throughout the district for tagging in April.
According to the documented process, in June, principals were again asked to gather a list of needs from their teaching staff for the upcoming school year, which enabled the schools to gather high-demand, excess materials from the consolidated schools. Then, from Sept. 11-17, principals got the chance to visit Randall Holden to tag items they wanted. However, not all of these materials wound up being needed and some were returned to the school.
On Oct. 1, staff delivered wish list materials to schools throughout the district, while also taking back more materials that turned out to not be needed. According to the email from Bonang, the district continues to bring in usable surplus materials from schools, and is scheduling pick-ups at eight locations in the district for non-profits and other school districts to pick through.
On Oct. 9, an email went out to City Council President Steve Merolla, council liaison Joann Cournoyer and purchasing agent Patricia Peshka, informing them that the city would be able to pick through items of interest for two weeks prior to nonprofits getting the chance and then, subsequently, the recycling/disposal process would begin.
While the photos shared by Adams showed one dumpster with seven seemingly good conditioned chairs stacked in front waiting for disposal, by the time the excess materials got to the city for selection there was still 600 total student chairs available to choose from, according to numbers reported in the memo.
According to delivery records, practically every school in the district obtained at least some of the educational materials from the excess property list, including 49 desks for Toll Gate and 38 of the types of chairs in the Facebook post that were tagged for Vets Middle School. Materials salvaged also included filing cabinets, white boards, display cases and varying sizes of tables and desks, among other items.
When asked if the district had considered procedures to make some money off the items eventually resigned for junking, Ferruci said more often than not, the manpower costs to collect the materials and dispose of them for money outweighed any money to be made from the process.
“If we needed to spend $25 to remove some materials from schools to try and recycle metal that might pay us $5 or $10, the staff was instructed not to waste the time or effort,” he said. “On the other hand, if something proved to be cost effective, we would authorize the investment for a return worthwhile for the district.”
The recycling process for excess or outdated equipment has been called into question in the past, most recently last February as a large volume of outdated electronics were recycled, which generated controversy in regards to how the schools went about the process.
The process is actually conducted according to city law, found in Chapter 56, Section 13 of the City Charter, which states items may be disposed of after surplus, obsolete or unused materials have been transferred throughout the city department, and notice has been given to the City Council:
“The identification of unserviceable junk property may be made by the director of the department having custody and control of the property, and upon written notification to the city council two weeks prior to its disposal by the purchasing agent, said junk property shall then be disposed of by the purchasing agent by donation to private groups or organizations, if possible, or disposed of in the customary manner of the city. In the case of any junk property not so determined by the department director as outlined above, it shall be determined by the joint decision of the purchasing agent, and chairman of the finance committee or his or her designee, who may be any member of the council, and shall be disposed of by donation to private groups or organizations, if possible, or be disposed of in the customary manner of the city.”