If Warwick is to build a new high school in the near future – as has been discussed in meetings between city and school officials lately – time is of the essence, as complex details must be ironed out to ensure that looming deadlines are met and reimbursement from the state could potentially be secured.
Finding people in favor of building a new school isn’t challenging in a city where the newest school building was constructed in the early ’70s.
“How much excitement could we generate?” Ed Ladouceur, Ward 5 City Councilman who has been an outspoken advocate of building a new school in the city since at least 2016, hypothesized on Wednesday. “We need to start getting our citizens energized and excited…The bottom line is we know we need to build a new school. I don’t think anyone is going to disagree with that.”
Darlene Netcoh, President of the Warwick Teachers’ Union, certainly agrees with the notion of a new school building as well.
“I'm always in favor of what will be best educationally for the kids, and since our youngest schools are approaching 50 years old, there does need to be a conversation about how to provide a 21st century education,” she said on Wednesday.
But it was Mayor Joseph Solomon who summed up the complicated nature of this topic best.
“Everybody loves new, whether it be new homes, new clothing, new computers, new cars, whatever – but it’s a matter of practicality and fiscal responsibility and whether or not you can afford the price tag associated with those items that are new,” he said during his weekly Beacon interview. “Until you have those details presented, you cannot make a commitment either way – not a responsible commitment.”
The quick answer to that inquiry? Maybe. But only if things move abnormally quickly for a project of this scale and in an amicably collaborative way between a school department and municipal government that has, to put it lightly, not often seen eye to eye on big-picture topics such as school consolidation, budgetary decisions and the maintenance of existing facilities.
To boil down the situation as it stands, the school department has already submitted their Stage 1 application to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) for reimbursement on about $80 million worth of new capital bond projects. These projects would include things like new HVAC systems at Toll Gate and Winman, asbestos abatement and new roofs for Winman and five elementary schools. The school committee has also already authorized $200,000 for a contractor to design architectural and engineering plans for this prospective work.
The school department will also be seeking the second release of funding from the City Council, possibly as early as November, on the $40 million bond that was approved by voters last November. This funding would, as planned, go to replace the HVAC system at Pilgrim High School, among many other fixes throughout the district.
So, if the city and schools were to join together and decide that a brand-new school construction was the route they wanted to take – this would obviously change quite a bit about these plans. If a new high school was to be built, obviously the city and school department shouldn’t spend money fixing the HVAC systems at schools like Toll Gate and Pilgrim that potentially wouldn’t be used.
The good news is that the schools can amend their application as submitted to RIDE to reflect these potential changes, however this would need to happen prior to either of two deadlines set by the state – one on February 1, 2020 and the other on Sept. 1, 2020 – which each have implications for how a prospective bond question would be posed on the November 2020 ballot.
To simplify the scenarios, if the schools finalize their application amendment prior to February 1, 2020, they would in theory – after gaining the approval of the state legislature and city council – be able to place the bond measure on the 2020 ballot with no conditions, just as the $40 million bond measure was worded on the 2018 ballot. It would simply be a much bigger financial commitment, as it would include the price of a brand-new school building in addition to the some $80 million in repairs already included in the scope of the application (give or take adjustments related to high school repairs that would no longer be necessary).
The timing that would be required to meet such a deadline is, optimistically speaking, unlikely. By school finance director Anthony Ferrucci’s assessment, the work required of an educational consultant to come in and do a widespread analysis of the city’s infrastructure and make a recommendation would take anywhere from six to nine months. Less than four months remains until the Feb. 1 deadline.
The far more likely scenario is for the city to meet the later Sept. 1, 2020 deadline. In this case, the city could still put a new school bond on the ballot for voters to approve or deny, but it would have to come attached with a caveat that activation of the bond would hinge on state and city approval, and does not guarantee funding reimbursement from the state until that has been accomplished.
First and foremost, the city and schools would have to agree right away on bringing in an educational consultant to assess the city’s existing school buildings and make a determination about what would make the most sense should a new building be constructed – determinations like where should it be built; should it be a super high school meant for all city high school students; how big should it be; and how to build it to gain the maximum reimbursement from the state.
This component, so far, does not seem to be an issue of contention among the city or school officials. Solomon mentioned above and multiple times throughout his interview that he wanted to see more details – the kind of details only this consultant could provide. Ladouceur agrees with that notion as well.
“Let's get the research going,” he said. “Let's find out what it's going to cost us, what's the time frame, can we get logistical work done in time to get this to where it needs to be and how we're going to pay for it.”
But to hearken back to the earlier point, that research would need to begin almost immediately, and it wouldn’t come for free. In 2015, the schools did a similar assessment through Providence-based architectural design firm SMMA, which Netcoh recalled costing around $260-280,000. Ferrucci agreed such a study would cost anywhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $300,000.
“I think if the city side is interested and the school side is interested, they need to collaborate,” Netcoh said. “The schools are part of the city and we all know the school side of the budget has shrunk over many years.”
Even if a consultant is hired as early as the school committee’s next meeting on Oct. 15, this would still leave precious little time to prepare a comprehensive design plan for a brand-new school building – which RIDE would be looking for in a Stage 2 application.
The proposed new building would also have to satisfy RIDE’s incentive elements – things like energy and space efficiency – in order to hypothetically earn a favorable reimbursement rate. Warwick is guaranteed a 35 percent reimbursement from the state, but could push that number to nearly 52 percent by satisfying those incentives.
Such a reimbursement rate seemed an essential piece to this puzzle for city officials.
“That's not something that is going to be here forever. It's also a first come first serve in regards to other communities,” Ladouceur said of the reimbursement rate and the state’s $250 million pot of money for school bond projects, which could become $500 million if another bond referendum passes in 2022. “If we invest $180 million in a new school, we'll get $90 million back and we can take that $90 million and use it on the buildings it's determined it's a wise decision to keep.”
For Ladouceur, while more information is necessary, he wants to see action as well.
“This is a conversation I tried to have three and a half years ago. This needs to be looked at,” he said. “But if everybody just sits back on their hands and says forget it, we're going to take the easy, non-confrontational route and stay out of the public limelight and just keep throwing millions and millions of dollars after buildings where it doesn’t make any sense, I'm not here for that. I here to look at the big picture of things.”