In a 13-2 vote yesterday afternoon, the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) recommended Warwick Veterans High School be re-purposed as a new junior high within two years.
The official recommendation, a motion presented by committee member David Testa, was for each member of the committee to call out the name of the school they wished to see re-purposed, with the understanding that that high school close at the end of the 2014 academic year and be re-opened as a junior high school in fall 2015. The committee also recommended Aldrich Junior High and Gorton Junior High be closed in 2015. Those students would then attend the new Vets junior high and Winman.
Thirteen members of the committee said “Vets,” while only Bill McCaffrey and Catherine Bonang said “Pilgrim.”
The committee has been meeting since June with the goal of presenting their recommendation for the facilities at the secondary level to the School Committee by a January deadline. However, the recommendation could be forwarded to the School Committee next month.
In the summer, it was decided that consolidation would be the recommendation, followed shortly by the decision to recommend transitioning the district to a two-high school, two-junior high school system.
Prior to yesterday’s vote, there was a discussion among the committee members regarding the biggest factors in their decision of one school over another: Location, building quality (structural and cosmetic), special programs at one school versus the other, possible future use of the building as a junior high school, and finances.
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino pointed out that at a previous meeting it was brought up that Toll Gate High School is located in the southern portion of the city, Pilgrim in the north, and Vets in the middle. He said this made Vets a good “swinging location” for those students who would have gone to either Gorton or Aldrich for junior high.
Bonang brought up concerns about population, and a previous estimate that Toll Gate could see 1,200 students and the other remaining high school a population of 1,600.
“If it was me, and I was choosing where my child would go, I would want them to go to the 1,200 school,” she said.
However, D’Agostino and Elementary Education Director Robert Bushell were quick to explain that those numbers were only estimates to create a potential model of transportation needs. If the decision to consolidate is passed, there would be a more detailed analysis of population sizes in each building to ensure a 55/45 or 50/50 split. D’Agostino said the aim would be within that range.
D’Agostino said that process would be done after a vote from the School Committee if they receive the official word that consolidation is approved; what streets or feeder schools would go to what schools, schedule, staffing and other decisions come later.
As for student population, D’Agostino said the state recommendation of keeping a school at 85 percent capacity would be followed.
“Pilgrim is much larger [than Toll Gate],” said D’Agostino after the meeting. “They are not proportional in size.”
When the discussion moved on to building quality, it was once again mentioned that all three high schools are desperately in need of cosmetic improvements.
“Whatever we do here has to include upgrades and renovations to all three buildings,” said D’Agostino.
While many committee members had previously felt that Pilgrim was in need of the most cosmetic improvement (painting, ceiling tiles, etc.), D’Agostino said those items could be done over a summer. Vets, on the other hand, is in need of at least a new roof, elevator, boiler and more.
“These are structural changes; structural changes need at least a year,” said D’Agostino.
Program-wise, it was brought up that Pilgrim hosts the Extended School Year Program, the largest number of special needs students and an 18- to 21-year-old program. Both Pilgrim and Vets host programs from the Career and Technical Center, but those could be moved easier.
The actual setup of the buildings was something Testa was concerned about thinking about the junior high population. How would 12- to 14-year-olds, or 11- to 14-year-olds in the event of a switch to the middle school model, navigate through the buildings?
“To me, Pilgrim is a sprawled out building,” said Testa. “Vets reminds me of a junior high when I was growing up. It’s a square, with the classrooms around the outside.”
Finance was the last item discussed because, as has been previously reported, the savings between re-purposing Vets or re-purposing Pilgrim was $150,000 (saving more if Vets became a junior high). While he admitted the difference was small, D’Agostino pointed out it was still $150,000. He pointed out that $150,000 could buy 300 desktop computers, 15 Google chrome carts with 30 laptops each, or even pay for two more teachers or three teacher aids.
During the discussion, committee members continued to bring up needs in the schools, including technology needs. Patti Nazareth said when she toured the schools she saw drastically different technology; smart boards at Vets, but overhead projectors at Toll Gate.
“Students need to have the same opportunities,” she said.
There was also discussion of future plans further down the line regarding middle school models and all-day kindergarten. D’Agostino said those decisions will come from the administration looking at their plan for curriculum down the road.
The committee will now adjourn for a few weeks while D’Agostino and Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen create the report that will be presented to the School Committee, containing all of the information and ideas presented by the LTFPC. They will then call back the member of the planning committee to read through the report and ensure they are happy with the wording of the recommendation and that information is presented in the correct manner; the recommendation itself will not change.
“They have been sitting here since June,” said D’Agostino. “This won’t be a Dennis and Richard document. This is a Long Term Facilities Planning document.”