The Warwick School Committee recently approved a proposal from the School Building Committee that will, eventually, seek nearly $80 million in a second school construction bond first from the Warwick City Council and then, if all goes to plan, from the voters of Warwick during the 2020 election.
In November of 2018, Warwick voters approved a bond referendum that granted the schools a $40 million bond to complete the first phase of crucial infrastructure and building improvement projects. This phase includes things like fire and safety alarm upgrades at six schools, asbestos abatement, roofing projects, interior door lock upgrades and ADA access projects, including playgrounds at two elementary schools.
The first release of that funding – in the amount of about $6.18 million – was approved by the City Council in March, and since that time the schools have awarded 13 bond-related contracts to perform a portion of that work, worth approximately $2.35 million. No contracts have yet been awarded for ADA-accessible playgrounds at Warwick Neck or Lippitt schools, and no interior lock work has been awarded either.
This most recent activity in the ongoing attempts to find funding to improve Warwick’s schools may come as a bit of a surprise to those following these developments since February of last year, when the City Council split a request from the school committee amounting to $85 million down to $40 million. At the time, now-Council President Steve Merolla explained that such a move would enable “more control and oversight” into how the bond was rolled out.
The expectation was that the schools would return before the 2020 election cycle seeking the balance of the original request, at which time the council would be able to gauge the progress of the bond work and, hopefully, feel more confident about approving the remainder.
But it is unclear how the council as a whole will feel about the developments that have transpired since, which has resulted in this “second phase” of the original bond request shooting up from about $45 million to about $80 million. School finance director Anthony Ferrucci said during a special meeting on Aug. 7 that Mayor Joseph Solomon, Merolla and school personnel including Superintendent Philip Thornton and School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus had met to discuss the subject.
“They were supportive of the initiative,” Ferrucci said at the meeting. “I believe they understand the dire need in which to move this forward.”
In his document to the school committee that also includes an extensive report outlining the scope of the original work, plus revisions and additions that were voted in unanimously (7-0) by the School Building Committee, Ferrucci explained that the most significant increase to the request is due to the necessity of including two additional HVAC systems, one at Winman Middle School and one at Toll Gate High School.
“In all previous reports, it was stated that these two (newest buildings to Warwick) did not need significant HVAC work,” the document outlining the request states. “The reports stated that what needed to be replaced were boiler type systems. With the failure of heating units in Winman, we have since learned that the systems are in worse shape than reported and, similar to the Veterans’ experience, replacement of these systems will require air quality assurance features, thus a change from boiler replacements to HVAC systems similar to Veterans Middle School and Pilgrim High School.”
Specifically, the new bond request has added the following list to the original $45 million ask:
l $15.5 million in new HVAC projects at Winman and Toll Gate
l $5.46 million in new roofing projects at five remaining elementary schools and Winman
l $1.92 million in new asbestos abatement, consisting of 75 percent of the existing flooring at Winman
l $2.93 million in building envelope increases, “to reflect anticipated increases”
l $1.48 million in increased paving costs
l $465,000 in increased electrical project expenses
l $250,000 in kitchen equipment replacement expenses due to the discovery of asbestos
l $6.5 million in “soft cost” increases, adjusted for RIDE recommendations
l $598,000 in “Misc. cost increases”
In order to get the new phase of the bond in motion, the school department will need to conduct architectural and engineering work at a cost of around $200,000 – which would go to Saccoccio and Associates, the contractor who did the same design work for the first phase of the bond. The deadline for submitting the letter of intent to RIDE – the first in a lengthy process for getting reimbursement money for school capital projects – was on Thursday, Aug. 15. The department met the deadline. Ferrucci said Monday the committee will consider revising its budget at the September meeting to pay for the architectural costs.
The School Committee unanimously voted on Aug. 7 in support of moving the adjusted Phase 2 list forward and incurring the $200,000 cost. It was discussed that the district should be seeing an unanticipated increase of around $280,000 in state aid, and some on the committee suggested earmarking $200,000 of that money for these costs.
“There will be criticism, of course there will be criticism but that's just the nature of the beast,” said School Committee member David Testa at the Aug. 7 meeting. “But our teachers, our support staff, our students and our community deserve to have buildings that are modernized. That to me is more important.”
In an Aug. 9 letter addressed to Joseph DaSilva, School Construction Coordination at RIDE, Mayor Joseph Solomon relates that he met with school officials to discuss the funding application.
The mayor writes, “Given the concerns relative to the condition of a number of school buildings, the need to provide a health and safe environment for our students, faculty and staff and implement cost-saving energy efficiencies in our facilities, I informed the Superintendent and the Chairwoman that I have no objection to their appearance before the City Council so that this process can continue forward.”
“Thank you very much on behalf of the building committee and I think the future of the district,” Ferrucci said. “This is a wise investment but it's also a difficult decision given budget constraints.”