NEWS

Little reaction to $330M high school plans

By ARDEN BASTIA
Posted 4/1/21

By ARDEN BASTIA What was billed as an interactive community forum to discuss the future of Warwick high schools attracted little engagement, the only community questions coming from the president of the Warwick Teacher's Union. Warwick Public Schools

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NEWS

Little reaction to $330M high school plans

Posted

What was billed as an interactive community forum to discuss the future of Warwick high schools attracted little engagement, the only community questions coming from the president of the Warwick Teacher’s Union.

Warwick Public Schools hosted a virtual community forum on Tuesday night, aimed to gauge community interest in the high school renovation projects projected to cost $330 million. However, due to the poor design of the meeting, it was difficult for community members to submit questions and interact. Questions had to be submitted in writing in advance to the meeting.

According to Anthony Ferrucci, chair of the building committee and former finance director for the district, community support for the projects is vital. The renovations of Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools rely on voter support for a November 2022 bond referendum. Without the bond, Warwick Public Schools is unable to finance the renovations.

The school committee did not vote on the proposed plans during the community forum. Karen Bachus suggested that the decision “be its own meeting” and “not to rush through the decision,” however, Ferrucci is pushing for a vote sooner rather than later in order to put the plans into motion.

Judy Cobden, committee chair, tabled a vote for a future meeting, based on agenda availability.

When the committee approves a plan, it be submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for approval as part of the stage one application process, which will take about three months. Ferrucci explained that more detail would be available to the public then.

During the stage two process, Ferrucci explained the proposal could go before the City Council in February 2022, and then before the General Assembly by May 2022 to place the question before the voters on the November 2022 ballot. Ferrucci hopes that the school department will have the support of RIDE, and then voter support in November. With voter approval and funding secured, bidding for contractors would begin in 2023, and Ferrucci estimates breaking ground in 2024.

Frank Locker, of Locker Educational Planning in Randolph, MA, is working alongside the building committee to assess the future of Warwick’s high schools. At last week’s school committee meeting, Locker and architect Ed Bourget, of SAAM Architecture, recommended plans for Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools.

The recommended plan for Pilgrim, called Option C or “Community Hug”, would take roughly 36 months to complete, at a cost of $176,739,305. The plan features a new two-story addition across the front of the building, a new façade for the outside of the school, better safety and security controls, new sports fields with synthetic turf, and increased parking.

This plan also makes the auditorium, cafeteria, and gymnasium more accessible to both students and the community, which, according to Locker, “Makes a major statement to the community.”

Locker calls the recommended plan for Toll Gate “The Heart of the School”, or Option C. This plan will take about 36 months to complete and cost $125,424,605. It includes a new story addition, a redesigned entryway into the building, enlarged bridges, new commons and media center, demolishing Drum Rock, and new athletic fields with synthetic turf.

“We think these significant gestures not only meet the functional requirements but also creates a sense of community,” said Locker during his presentation. “My prediction is that this is a kid magnet, and we need kid magnets for our schools.”

“There are many opportunities to take what we’re envisioning and as a group, engage all the stakeholders and go down that road to dig into these types of details to ensure that the community is getting the building that they want,” said Bourget on Tuesday.

Bourget and Locker assured community and committee members that progress updates, including artistic renderings of the projects, will soon be available to the public, as well as fly-through, interactive videos once construction is underway.

“It’ll be a gut renovation, so all the systems will be replaced, all the windows will be replaced,” explained Bourget. “In essence, when you walk through these spaces, it’s going to act and feel like a new building even though portions of it will be from the old building.”

Bourget also pointed out that the new buildings will have improved WiFi access and coverage, as well as more electrical outlets. With increased technology use in the classroom, on top of distance learning, internet accessibility has been an issue for many teachers throughout the district.

The projects will cost around $330 million. Ferrucci explained the state reimbursement rate for the projects is 35 percent. There are also incentives for offered by RIDE, however, these incentives expire at the end of December. Ferrucci said he’s been advocating for state leadership to extend those incentives for another five years so they’re applicable for the high school projects. Principals embrace plans

While community interaction was low, there was enthusiastic support for the proposed plans from Darlene Netcoh, president of the WTU, as well as high school principals Candace Calouri from Toll Gate and Gerald Habershaw from Pilgrim.

“This is actually something good happening for our city, and it’s about time,” said Netcoh. “It’s nice to hear things like ‘The Heart of the School’ and ‘Community Hug’ because they are 20th century schools. They don’t have the proper infrastructure.”

Netcoh asked about the addition of windows at Toll Gate, which currently has a number of windowless classrooms. Netcoh was concerned about the HVAC systems and exchange of fresh air within the classrooms, a prevalent issue during the pandemic.

Locker assured Netcoh that the windows will be operable. “The concept is very different from what we’re used to, but does have precedence. I’m confident that it’ll be just right,” said Locker, who pointed out that he and Bourget will be using other buildings, like multi-story shopping malls, hotels, and schools with similar designs as a template.

In an email on Monday, Gerald Habershaw, principal at Pilgrim High School, shared his thoughts on the proposed plans. “This is a very exciting time planning the possibility of new building structures for our two high schools. When completed, it will hopefully be a source of pride for the city of Warwick. For me personally, I will most likely be retired before the first shovel goes into the ground, but our students and this city deserve a state of the art high school.”

Candace Calouri, principal at Toll Gate High School, has been involved since the beginning, attending past forums and presentations.

“A lot of time and effort and really careful thought has gone into the proposals,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “In my opinion, all the stakeholders were represented in multiple meanings. This community forum is important for taxpayer buy in, and for students and parents to see the plans.”

Calouri is most excited for a new, fresh perspective that the buildings will bring. “It’s important for the building to be a welcoming place where kids want to be. I’m excited for our students to be globally competitive no matter what area they choose to go into.”

Calouri pointed out that many school buildings throughout the state have a very “institutional” feel. “When they were built, that was the way things were laid out, but the whole way we deliver instruction has changed dramatically since then, and so should the buildings we deliver it in.”

“I am 100 percent in support of moving our kids towards the future,” Calouri said. “It’s not just about a pretty building; it’s about functional space that works well for our emerging learners. Whatever we can do to make our kids 21st century learners, that is a plus in any column.”

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