By the numbers, it makes little difference whether Aldrich or Gorton Junior High School is closed. Closing either school and sending those students to the remaining two junior high schools would save slightly more than $1 million in operating costs annually, the committee charged with making a recommendation to the School Committee learned Tuesday.
The fact that the savings from closing either school are virtually identical will make a choice that much more difficult, said acting Superintendent Richard D’Agostino.
“We’re being very careful,” said D’Agostino. “This is a big step, but we want the department to operate as efficiently as possible.”
“We live in this big house,” he said of the Warwick system that has seen a steady decline in enrollment, from a high of almost 20,000 about 40 years ago to 9,615 students today. “And we don’t need this big house anymore.”
Capacities at the three junior highs range from 1,273 at Gorton to 1,311 at Winman. All three schools have 517 or fewer students and are operating at less than 50 percent capacity. Initially when the short-term facilities planning committee started its study, Winman Junior High was included in the mix. But as the newest of the three junior highs and as part of the Toll Gate educational complex, it was dropped for possible closure.
Operational savings projections, which were provided by the schools’ chief budget officer, Anthony Ferrucci, appeared to be the last bit of information the committee required to make a vote. Subcommittee member David Testa wanted to know if closing a junior high would preclude, at a later date, expanding the schools to include 6th grade. He was told there would still be adequate space for a 6-7-8 middle school and, in fact, elementary school director Robert Bushell thought that is what would happen. Bushell said “somewhere down the road we’re going to go to all-day kindergarten” and when it does, it will need the rooms gained when sixth graders become a part of middle schools.
Testa also asked about deed restrictions on the Aldrich and Gorton properties.
Committee member Mark Carruolo, chief of staff to Mayor Scott Avedisian, agreed it is a consideration, adding the group’s charge is not to research what to do with the property after a school closes, but rather to make a determination on what school should be closed.
With no further questions, Subcommittee chair and director of secondary education Dennis Mullen asked for a motion.
Amie Galipeau, who represents PTAs on the panel, moved that the group visit each of the schools before making a recommendation to the School Committee that will have a final say. The motion that passed unanimously was greeted by applause from about 100 parents and teachers. The meeting was held in the Robert J. Shapiro auditorium at Toll Gate High. At the last meeting, held in the school administration building, about 30 people were denied access because of room capacity requirements.
The committee will tour the two schools this afternoon.
In his report, Ferrucci found closing Aldrich would save $257,760 in supplies, utilities and building-based services and $1,385,000 with a staffing reduction of 12 certified and eight non-certified staff members. Those savings would be offset by the addition of five regular buses and one special education bus at a cost of $417,797. He looked at the same categories of savings if Gorton was to close. Operating savings he put at $212,274, but because one additional bus would be needed that added cost was $484,712. He projected the same staffing savings for both schools.
Ferrucci went a step further to factor in the debt service for each of the schools. When that was reduced from the savings, he came up with a net $1,098,963 annual savings if Aldrich closed and $1,007,562 if Gorton closed.
While schools can be operated at 100 percent capacity, D’Agostino said if the School Committee closes one of the junior highs, the remaining two would be at 85 percent capacity. He said that would provide space should rooms need to be closed for painting, for instance, or for special projects.
Members of the Warwick Teachers Union reason, however, that the schools remaining open would lose valuable educational space as rooms now set aside for science and technology would be lost to accommodate the increased enrollment.
Although no deadline has been set, D’Agostino has made it clear he is looking to have a decision soon. This could be the last year for either Aldrich or Gorton.