Consensus elusive on school bond
Over 4 hours, Council questions School Department spending
As of today, if there’s anything that all parties can agree about in regards to rebuilding the city’s schools, it’s that nobody can really agree about anything yet.
A meeting, which stretched to more than four hours and was intended to bring some clarity to the School Department about what direction the Warwick City Council felt would be best for the local taxpayers who will foot the majority of the potential repair bill, accomplished primarily instead what was a hopefully therapeutic session for some councilors to voice their frustrations about the behavior of past school administrations and bond-funded projects.
“You people are the deciding force – the school committee and the administration. We have no jurisdiction in that area,” said Council President Joseph Solomon prior to opening the floor for questions, setting a defensive tone. “So I just want to clarify those issues before that ball starts to roll and grow and then all of the sudden it’s, ‘the council has done this’ or ‘the Warwick City Council has done that, or is not doing this.’”
The council called the special meeting, held last Wednesday, to hear a presentation of facts and details in regards to the Warwick School Department’s proposal to go out for either $85 or $118 million in bond funding next year to begin repairing the city’s aging public schools – the average age of Warwick schools is 63 years. Presenting the details of the plan was Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci – who also chairs the School Building Committee.
Through the bond funding, Ferrucci reported that the department could replace five roofs, improve 14 HVAC systems and get the 14 remaining schools without an updated fire alarm system up to modern code, among other cosmetic improvements across the district. An exact breakdown of what improvements can be done with the $85 million bond, which was originally proposed last year but did not earn council approval, will be revealed in an updated master list during a presentation at the Dec. 12 School Committee meeting.
The council’s response to Ferrucci’s summary presentation – which included stacking the many voluminous, thick binders that encompassed more than five years of planning and data-driven studies on the table at the center of the council chambers – fell on a spectrum from cautious skepticism to palpable distaste and unease about giving the department such a large pot of money.
“Our kids deserve better, they really do deserve to have the schools in better shape…and we know we need millions and millions of dollars to do it,” said Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis. “My point is I don’t trust the administration to do it. I’m going to be blank.”
“We can’t tell you how to spend your money. Over the years we’ve seen bond money get frozen for a number of reasons,” said Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla. “It’s not you [Ferrucci], you weren’t here, but it’s the institution that you represent and the forecasts that they made that this council member wants to avoid from happening again. So to say I’m skeptical about what the forecasts are for the future, I have good reason to, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”
In response to the open distrust, Ferrucci said that he hoped his track record since coming to the district in 2011 would help ease the anxieties stemming from bad experiences with past projects and enable the council to focus on the issue at hand.
“Some City Council members have, in fact, been burned by past administrations, and I acknowledge their points about having a level of mistrust because of the history,” Ferrucci said on Monday. “I’ve attempted throughout my tenure to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible, so hopefully they can attain a level of trust with the new administration.”
Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley made the argument that the School Department has changed up their five-year plans for school rebuilding at least three times since he has been in charge of the finances, and therefore trusting in such a plan was difficult to do. Ferrucci took issue with this point, retorting that the main nucleus of the five-year plans have remained consistent.
“The overarching theme, collectively, I think has been very consistent,” he said, adding that the plan has long been to utilize two junior high schools and two high schools and consolidate elementary schools to respond to declining enrollment numbers. “It has all ended up circling around to where we are today.”
Merolla and Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur made the points that it made them uncomfortable to give the School Department such a large amount of money because, once bond funds are allocated into the school’s budget, the School Department can feasibly do whatever they want with the funds, regardless of the projects they pitched during the budget hearings.
However Ferrucci said that this concern is unrealistic, as the City Council could refuse to release more bond funds the following budget season if the schools gave them reason to believe they would not be trustworthy with them.
“I think the City Council has that oversight tool already in place,” he said. “If they don’t like the direction it’s going or the projects that are entertained, they have the opportunity to shut it down.”
Other suggestions, like Ladouceur asserting the possibility of building a new “super duper” high school or junior high school to better accommodate those students, posed other points of concern for school administration.
“I think some individuals in the city have a desire to build new schools, for example a new middle school or high school,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton on Friday. “That’s a great conversation to have, but we have to be mindful we have many other schools to consider. If we build a new large high school for $100 million, how do we take care of the other schools?”
Thornton and Ferrucci point to the example of Warwick Veterans Junior High School, which has undergone a rehabilitative transformation that updated the entire HVAC system, installed a new sewer system and electrical capabilities – amongst a slew of cosmetic improvements like all new ceiling paneling, efficient lighting, a rework of the gym and auditorium – and all for less than half of what the state’s Jacobs Report estimated would be necessary.
While the improvements to Vets did not encompass every single detail of what the Jacobs Report included in their cost estimate, Ferrucci said it still showed that the department was proving itself capable of finding savings and stretching their dollars for all they are worth, rather than simply being wasteful.
“I believe the school department has demonstrated a really astute method for spending our bond dollars wisely to show what we can do for our schools,” he said.
While the sides didn’t conclude the meeting with a clear picture about whether it would be wiser to pursue the originally-planned $85 million or the newly-modified $118 million bond (to satisfy RIDE’s aspirational capacity standards which say Warwick needs additional elementary school space for its students), Ferrucci said that the school department looks forward to continue working with the city moving forward.
“The school department is continuing in its desire to work with city leadership and the city council in meeting the community’s objectives to make the schools in the city the best in the state,” he said.
Ferrucci will present findings from the meeting tonight to the School Building Committee and then present an updated recommendation about what the bond request should look like from the School Committee on Dec. 12. Any bond request will have to be made through a City Council resolution before Feb. 1 in order to meet RIDE’s deadline for reimbursement for school building projects.