In an effort to address long neglected repairs to elementary and middle schools and take advantage of state reimbursements of up to 52 percent of the costs, the City Council approved Monday a $56 million bond to appear on the November ballot.
But the action didn’t come without prolonged debate over whether the funding plan should include new turf fields at the two high schools that Council President Steve Merolla reasoned would pay for themselves in rental fees and keep students in Warwick rather than having them transfer out of district with a loss of state tuition funding.
After almost three hours of discussion before the finance committee where chairman Ed Ladouceur argued to let the voters decide by placing the bond on the ballot, council members agreed to move ahead with the $56 million bond, rather than amend it to include the fields, and support a second bond, which they estimated at $10 million for the fields. The school department is to research the projected cost of the fields with the thought the council would consider that bond in March.
And there could yet be a third school bond issue on the ballot depending on the findings of a consultant studying the future of Warwick’s high schools and the committee’s recommendation that could call for a new school to replace Pilgrim, or significant investments in both Pilgrim and Toll Gate, estimated at about $200 million.
Merolla wanted funding for the fields in the Phase II school bond proposal.
“I went down to meet with the Rhode Island Department of Education,” Merolla said. “What I’d like to do is put money in for turf fields in the amount of $5 or 6 million.”
Merolla said rental income from independent leagues would help pay for the fields. Second, he said the Warwick community paid about $3 million to rent turf fields in Coventry, Cranston, North Kingstown and elsewhere. Lastly, he estimated there could be a potential 50 percent reimbursement from the Rhode Island Depart of Education (RIDE) for this project if added to the bond.
“I’ve never seen an opportunity like this,” he said.
The push to get the fields added to the Phase II bond was to see if RIDE would still cover half of the cost, whereas they may not approve reimbursement for field upgrades at a pre-existing site. According to a statement from RIDE, renovated field expenses are not covered in their reimbursement process, but new ones are.
“It has to be completely new in a new location,” RIDE spokeswoman Meg Geoghegan said Wednesday.
“Warwick is ripe for new fields,” Mayor Joseph J. Solomon said Wednesday. While favoring new fields, Solomon questioned if they would be eligible for state funding.
Merolla said that the council will follow the guidelines that RIDE gives them regarding construction on a new field as it depends on the definition of that new location.
William DePasquale, Mayor Solomon’s Chief of Staff, said there are unissued recreational bond fund that could be used for a new field but the funding is restricted to the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex.
The city could consider one field for use from both high schools, but that could lead to further issues.
School Committee’s Chairwoman Karen Bachus said that there could be problems with athletes getting to the fields, along with medical staff being able to assist with injuries at a location away from the school. Bachus recognized that there is urgency to get the fields on the ballot for 2020, but said it has to be done right.
Tom Flanders, Coach of girls’ soccer at Pilgrim, said that the condition of the fields now is an embarrassment. A few members of his team were present at the council meeting on Monday. He said that the missing grass on the field, exposed sprinkler heads and geese droppings are safety issues for student athletes.
“We need some type of plan,” Flanders said.
During the committee hearing, Merolla asked how many students leave Warwick Public Schools yearly. Anthony Ferrucci, Executive Director of Finance and Operations for Warwick Public Schools, estimated that roughly 200 students left the school system last academic year, whether it be for charter schools, technical schools or for traditional schools outside of the Warwick Public Schools system. For each student leaving, Ferrucci
said that about $16,000 in state funding leaves with them. This means that for the 200-student estimate, Warwick Public Schools lost $3.2 million to other districts.
Merolla argued high school turf fields would help keep students in Warwick schools and attract families to live in the city.
Councilman Ed Ladouceur said that he thinks it would be best to let the voters decide on any potential risk.
“We are not the ultimate deciders on this,” Ladouceur said. “All we’re doing is putting up a game plan for the voters to decide whether or not it makes sense to them and whether or not financially they want to do this.”
Following the debate, the finance committee recommended favorable action of the $56 million bond, which was approved 8-0 by the council.
As for an additional bond not to exceed $10 million for the fields, the council docketed the matter for its March 9 meeting.
“We’ve got to call our architect tomorrow and start him on the task of scoping out the athletic field question for both complexes,” Superintendent Philip Thornton said.
Thornton said the department wants an architect to look at drainage and size of fields. Ferrucci said that the committee aims to have proposed ideas for the field ready for the March 9 council meeting.
If approved by voters in November, the $56 million bond
Would cover the cost of five roof projects estimated to be $6.5 million as well as 13 HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning)/Mechanical projects at $26.6 million. Building Envelope, which refers to keeping air trapped inside the building by upgrading windows and doors, has 17 projects priced at $13.7 million. One asbestos abatement project at Winman Middle School is expected to cost $2.3 million. Eighteen electrical projects are aimed to cost $2.6 million, 9 plumbing fixes at $204k and finally 11 site projects, including curbs and blacktops are valued at $3.6 million.
The school that will receive the most spending in this bond is Winman at $5.9 million. A breakdown of the school funding is as follows: Drum Rock, $1.7 million; Cedar Hill, $3.2 million; Francis, $2.8 million; Greenwood, $2.6 million; Holliman, $5.7 million; Hoxsie, $2.6 million; Lippitt, $1.3 million; Norwood, $2.8 million; Oakland Beach, $4.2 million; Park, $3.4 million; Robertson, $2.9 million; Scott, $3.7 million; Sherman, $3.9 million; Warwick Neck, $3.8 million; and Wyman, $2.8 million; Veterans, $1.8.