The prospects of possibly building a new high school in Warwick heated up beyond hypothetical talk on Tuesday night, as the Warwick School Committee unanimously agreed to go out to bid to find a consultant that would walk the district through the process and provide various options – a necessary first step that keeps the city aligned on a tight deadline towards that goal.
“To put it in plain English, if the community has any desire at all to pursue a new school or dramatically improve the two high schools, this is a necessary step mandated by RIDE. This isn't something you do in house,” said School Committee at-large member David Testa. “This is a service you have to contract for and it's not cheap. It's very expensive.”
In that vein, Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, during the City Council’s meeting on Oct. 7, put forward a resolution during the unanimous consent portion to possibly allocate $100,000 to the school department to pay for the services of that consultant. That resolution will come up at the council’s next meeting on Monday, Oct. 21.
Rix said on Wednesday that he had been in talks with City Council President Steve Merolla and council Finance Committee chairman Ed Ladouceur about the resolution – both of whom have already been vocal about their support of looking into building a new school in Warwick.
Putting the resolution through unanimous consent also – if the money allocation is approved by the council – expedites the timeline for the school department to hire a consultant once they have responses to their RFP.
“Right now, given the climate and the market out there, these folks are quite busy,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton on Tuesday night. “So, at this point I think our best move would be to go out for bid and see what we can get for applicants.”
The possibility of a new school building – but not knowing where or when that possibility might materialize – poses some challenges to the school district in terms of planning for its ongoing capital bond projects that are funding renovations at all schools throughout the district.
To recap, the school department is nearing completion on the first round of projects that were made possible by a $6.8 million release from the first $40 million bond measure that was approved by voters last November. These included fire alarm system repairs, roof replacements and asbestos abatement projects, among multiple others.
Now, the school department has to prepare their pitch to the City Council for the second release of moneys from that $40 million bond – which finance director Anthony Ferrucci said would be in the range of $10-12 million, and could also be eligible for reimbursement through a 35 percent pay-as-you-go program from the Rhode Island Department of Education, bringing the city’s borrowing commitment down significantly.
Additionally, the school committee approved Tuesday night its finalized punch list for an approximately $79 million, phase two bond – an entirely new bond which will need city council, general assembly and voter approval – to continue the widespread renovation efforts.
However, the challenge lies in trying to plan for the possibility of a new high school being added to the mix. Of the $79 million new bond, $4.8 million of that is scheduled for work at Pilgrim High School, while $16.4 million is scheduled for work at Toll Gate. Additionally, part of the new release of bond money for the phase one, $40 million bond would currently includes a total replacement of the HVAC system at Pilgrim.
So, the question is then whether or not the school department should remove those construction elements entirely, as the schools where the work is slated to be done might be raised for a new building entirely. It was a quandary that generated some discussion.
“I don't know if there's a way to build a hedge for ourselves here, because the worst thing we can do to our kids and our teachers and our support staff is to carve something out – with the potential that the new building or regular remodeling of high schools goes down in flames – and now we have to figure out how do we fix what we originally said we needed to fix, but didn't because we thought we were going to get a new building,” Testa said. “I'm looking to try and protect ourselves.”
Ferrucci concurred with Testa, and said that there was some flexibility in terms of timing certain bond projects at the high schools so they could see if the new high school proposal materialized or didn’t.
“To continue with the application process will buy us some time with regards to the design plans of a potential high school down the road,” he said.
For example, Furrucci explained that should the school department go ahead with its plan for the Pilgrim HVAC to be replaced in the second release of bond funding, only to find out that the best plan for a new high school is to tear down Pilgrim, he said RIDE would be willing to work with the city to swap that HVAC project with another school in need of an HVAC repair – such as Winman or Toll Gate, which are both slated to get HVAC replacements through the $79 million bond.
“There's opportunities to move some projects around, but at the end of the day, Pilgrim will have new HVAC system, Toll Gate will have a new HVAC system and Winman will have a new HVAC system within the next two to three years,” Ferrucci said.
Knowing a new high school may be in the works would also behoove the district to reorganize the order of proposed projects scheduled for the remainder of the $40 million bond. For example, instead of doing the HVAC work at Pilgrim, they could instead prioritize the installation of ADA-compliant playgrounds or finishing renovation work on roofs and fire alarm systems.
“Let's delay the high school construction projects and go back and see what other projects can we do,” Ferrucci said.
And the word “delay” is an important one to understand its meaning in this context, stressed Testa.
“We're not killing the Pilgrim HVAC [project], all we're doing is delaying it. The public needs to know that,” he said. “We also have to know full well that we have a heating system at Pilgrim that is scary. So, we should keep our fingers crossed and say our prayers if we're the type of person who prays, and hope for mild winters.”
The school committee concurred that the school building committee should reconvene to re-prioritize the projects that would be made possible from the next release in funding from the $40 million bond to reflect the possibility of a new school. Ferrucci said they would be doing so within the week and would be back before the committee in a special meeting to hopefully be on the City Council’s docket by their first meeting in November to discuss the release of funding.
The committee also ultimately approved keeping the projects included within the $79 million bond proposition the same, knowing that they may have to eat some money for architectural and engineering design work on projects that may not ultimately be necessary – however, the committee agreed this is a relatively minor drawback to ensure that the district doesn’t put all its eggs in the hopeful basket of building a new school, which at this point is far from a guaranteed possibility.
“That to me, that's the responsible thing to do. We need all the options open, so I think we stand on the $79 [million bond request],” Testa said. “The only potential expenditure could be A&E [architectural and engineering] work on a project. Not the project itself. If that happened, I think anybody on this stage could stand up and defend that. Because at the time we made that decision, it was the right decision to make.”
The committee also hopes to come before the City Council to discuss the $79 million, phase two bond at the first meeting in November. The hope would be to gain approval from the council on both the release of funding and to go ahead with the application for the second bond, which would enable the school department to go out to bid for construction work to commence this upcoming summer.
“We would like to have these answers before Thanksgiving so we can get out and be competitively bidding,” Ferrucci said. “The longer we delay it, the more opportunity for them to line up other jobs.”