Panel says there’s capacity to close one high school
Following a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) housing report by Paul Jansson, assistant director of buildings and grounds, and a junior and senior high school consolidation scenario presentation by Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) agreed Thursday there’s the capacity to consolidate at the senior high level.
“Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the committee’s opinion is that three senior highs can fit into two,” said Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino, head of the committee. “There are enough seats to adequately address the number of students.”
At the start of the meeting, D’Agostino said it was important to have a clear understanding of building capacity before talking about consolidation.
Going by the School Capacity Regulation (SCR) guidelines, which recommend 174 square feet per student at the elementary level, D’Agostino said Cedar Hill, with 41,936 square feet of building space and an enrollment of 436, is 195 students above capacity, which would provide enough space for only 241 students based on the SCR guidelines.
With 26 classrooms, “that comes to nine students per classroom,” he continued. “We would need to add on 20 teachers for 20 [additional] classrooms, which would be $2 million for just Cedar Hill.”
Committee member Catherine Bonang said fire code regulations require 50 square feet per student in a lab or shop and 20 square feet per student in a classroom, which Jansson confirmed in his report based on data RIDE collected for the 2011-12 school year.
“Another way to calculate the maximum occupant of a school is to use the state building and fire codes, both of which calculate the occupancy based on the safe exiting of the occupants,” he said. “The building code allowance for classroom space is 20 square feet [net] per pupil. The fire code states the same allowance. If these figures were used by RIDE, a 950-square-foot classroom might net 855 square feet, which would allow 43 occupants in the room.”
Jansson said one of the shortfalls of the RIDE report and the SCRs is that the guidelines specify the maximum allowable square feet per pupil based on the housing aid reimbursement limitations, “but they do not address the minimum square foot per student, the impact on existing schools, nor do they define overcrowding.”
“The guidelines basically set limits on reimbursement,” he said. “They are not guidelines; the numbers are a limitation of RIDE’s financial responsibility for housing aid.”
Jansson explained under the SCRs, all new construction projects shall meet educational program guidelines that provide the basis for gross square footage per pupil allowances. According to the report, “the standards and any associated RIDE guidelines shall define prototype school design and space recommendations for each specified program eligible for housing aid. Projects that exceed gross square footage per pupil allocations will be reimbursed only up to the limits of the guidelines.”
Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained the reason for the guidelines.
“Other communities, like Woonsocket, Central Falls and Pawtucket, built large facilities to be used as more than schools, such as community centers and recreation facilities, when there were no regulation guidelines in place and they were getting 90 to 95 percent reimbursement,” he said. “That was the impetus for the new regulations in 2007,” to prevent the same from happening again.
Jansson said it makes more sense to use reported capacity numbers, which is calculated by each school district as the number of seats in all educational spaces and applying limitations that may exist through union contracts and state building and fire codes.
With a reported capacity of 525 at Cedar Hill, the school is actually 89 below capacity based on Warwick’s self-reporting. According to a sheet passed out at the meeting comparing the recommended space for a contemporary educational program and Warwick’s self-reported capacity by school, using self-reported capacity numbers, every school in the district is below capacity.
In addition to speaking about building capacity, Jansson talked about building conditions. He said buildings are rated on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 is good and 4 is poor. According to the report, a 1 rating means the building is in good condition and only requires a minimal amount be spent on asset protection, $3.30 per square foot; a 2 rating indicates the building is generally in good condition but minor renovations should be performed to preserve it, $86 per square foot; a 3 rating indicates the building is in fair to poor condition and is in need of moderate renovations, $147 per square foot; and a 4 rating indicates the building is in poor condition and needs major renovation or replacement, $273 per square foot.
Jansson said most buildings in Warwick are rated 2, but Aldrich and Gorton are both rated 3.
“We need to construct new buildings,” said Robert Bushell, director of elementary education. “Most are in the 75-year range and are not suited for today’s environment.”
Using Wyman and Oakland Beach as examples, Bushell said the district could build in their large backyard areas without interrupting instruction in the front.
“When we have expanded in the past, there was no plan and the room went wherever it fit,” D’Agostino said. “Why would we repair buildings with millions of dollars that are only half-full? We need to demonstrate we’re using the money wisely and efficiently to continue to receive support.”
Committee member David Testa said the district can only work with what it has.
“The two-junior high and two-senior high model makes sense, but the savings should go toward all-day kindergarten and the middle school model; we can look at building expansion down the road,” he said.
Mullen began his presentation by providing current enrollments at each of the high schools and junior highs as of Aug. 28: 1,010 at Pilgrim; 913 at Warwick Vets; 971 at Toll Gate; 508 at Aldrich; 467 at Gorton; and 516 at Winman.
Using Aug. 2 enrollment numbers, the most up-to-date at the time, Mullen showed that three senior highs could be consolidated into two.
If Warwick Vets were to be consolidated, Pilgrim’s enrollment would be 1,435 and Toll Gate would be 1,413; if Toll Gate were to be consolidated, Pilgrim would be 1,487 and Warwick Vets would be 1,489; and, using Aug. 28 enrollment numbers, if Pilgrim were to be consolidated, Toll Gate’s enrollment would be approximately 1,476 and Warwick Vets would be 1,418. In each of the scenarios, the numbers are well below the reported capacities at each building: 2,228 at Pilgrim; 1,867 at Toll Gate; and 2,146 at Warwick Vets.
“Pilgrim was over 1,400 students when I was principal about nine years ago and it was comfortable,” Mullen said. “The recommended capacity is 85 percent, so it would not be an issue.”
Mullen said he would look at the availability of vacant rooms during instruction time and report back to the committee at the next meeting.
Using the example of an AP class that had four students at one school, and three at another, if the two were combined, D’Agostino said another teacher would not need to be hired.
“We need to examine those situations,” he said, adding that Honors classes and AP classes are already combined in the same room but each group receives different instruction.
D’Agostino said the average class size at the secondary level is 17, while at the elementary level it’s 19. He also said the average classroom size in the district is between 700 and 900 square feet, and kindergarten rooms are between 1,200 and 1,300 square feet.
Committee member Jacqueline Harris-Connor asked if a junior-senior high campus scenario had been examined.
“That was brought up at one of the other meetings, but an audience member said they were uncomfortable with the idea of a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old sharing facilities, like the cafeteria and gymnasium,” said committee member Ed Racca.
D’Agostino reminded the committee that when Winman was built, it was designed to accommodate three grades, and even did house grades 7, 8 and 9 at one time.
“If Toll Gate was tight, we have the option of moving the ninth grade to Winman. Or we could look at moving the sixth grade to Winman,” he said. “We need to keep looking at things, which hasn’t happened for 20 years.”
Following the meeting, School Committee member Eugene Nadeau said he never heard anyone talk about the district’s 1,400 employees.
“That’s necessary when you submit the findings, to also submit the reduction in teachers, WISE [Warwick Independent School Employees] employees and administrators because that’s where the savings are,” he said. “This is a good committee and they’re very capable.”
The next LTFPC meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 9 at the Warwick Public Schools administration building, 34 Warwick Lake Avenue, Warwick.
School Committee allocates $170K for FY14 budget
During a special School Committee meeting on Aug. 25, the committee voted to approve fiscal year 2014 allocation of remaining funds in the amount of $170,000. Ferrucci said $100,000 will be for an evaluation fellowship as part of the teacher evaluation system, and the remaining $70,000 will be for a 4/5 math teaching position at Toll Gate.
Ferrucci said the exact amount for the teaching position is unknown until the hire is made because it depends on what step the teacher is, but because it is not a full-time position, he said the amount will not exceed $70,000.