West Warwick schools show value of ongoing maintenance
Governor Gina Raimondo joined state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Department of Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and West Warwick superintendent Karen Tarasevich at the John F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick for the third installation in a series of discussions by the Rhode Island School Buildings Task Force.
The purpose of this meeting, unlike the first two in Newport and Johnston which sought to gauge community input, was to ask teachers who work in the classroom every day what the most dire needs are in terms of the condition of schools and working day-to-day in classrooms.
In West Warwick, although they have been level funded in their school budgets and will continue to be level funded for the next few years, maintenance of the school facilities was not reported to be a serious problem – and the conditions of the schools brought about feelings of pride from the 10 or so teachers who were included on the panel encompassing different schools and fields of study from West Warwick.
“They really do a great job keeping the schools in a great condition,” said teacher Marc Leblanc. “I think people have these preconceived notions that they're going to come into West Warwick and things aren't going to be that nice. Then they come in and they're always impressed by how well the facilities look and operate...We still have a lot of problems and things we have to fix but it is really amazing how much they're able to fix.”
According to the Jacobs report – the state-sanctioned report which chronicled all schools in every school district in Rhode Island and assessed the level of funding needs in each – West Warwick is only facing about $37.2 million in deficiencies. For context, the FY18 budget for the West Warwick School Department is about $56 million. The five-year need going forward according to Jacobs is about $50 million.
Part of the reason why West Warwick isn’t facing similar challenges as some surrounding communities – particularly its neighbor Warwick, which is facing $190 million in deficiencies and is operating on a $167 million budget for FY18 – is partially due to the size difference in the communities (21 schools in Warwick versus six in West Warwick), but it is also due to certain differences in how preventative maintenance is conducted.
In West Warwick, there are five people on the school department payroll who are masters of their craft. At the top of this maintenance group is the director of maintenance, Kenneth Townsend, who is himself a master electrician.
Being able to conduct in-house maintenance on the small, and sometimes big, issues that crop up during a school year has “saved” the school district, according to Tarasevich, as they would not have the money to go to bid and utilize outside contracting for such projects otherwise.
At the same time, the small but dedicated maintenance team takes pride in maintaining each school, and conducts annual inspections in addition to the work that gets done every summer – changing light bulbs and air filters and fixing other little issues that come up but might otherwise go unfixed in other districts and compound into a bigger issue.
“Every classroom literally gets ripped apart and put together every year...that's why when they walk in [at the start of a new year] everything is spotless,” Townsend said. “When I started here the buildings were pretty much in deplorable condition. We've made a lot of changes...we've always tried to make things better.”
Tarasevich, who was named the state’s superintendent of the year for 2018, said that the school department in West Warwick reflects that culture of pride in their facilities.
“It's not just who is going to do this piece of the work, it's the culture that supports things being done, people being trained, mentoring the guys in your department who come up through the ranks – that pride that we've been talking about,” she said. “I think that's a big part of what happens here.”
Magaziner seemed very receptive to the concept of districts utilizing more master craftsmen in house to fix problems in order to save money on maintenance costs. The obvious hurdle there is whether or not master tradesmen would be willing to take a significant pay cut in order to help out a school district. Here is where Townsend said the concept of truly investing and caring for your community is important.
“Pride is huge,” Townsend said. “The district as a whole, from town council to teachers and superintendents try to make it better.”
The discussion was a refreshing change of pace from the stories of woe that plague larger districts, where many schools have fallen into horrendous states of disrepair. Teachers in West Warwick said they still deal with drafty windows or windows that don’t open at all. Some portions of some schools are overheated, and others are cold. However their enrollment is increasing and they need more space, whereas Warwick has had to close or re-purpose buildings due to an excessive amount of space which cannot be maintained.
While the situation in West Warwick cannot be applied statewide, there were lessons to be learned from their situation, which Magaziner said he was appreciative of. Magaziner and the rest of the School Building Task Force must have a workable “plan of action” on Raimondo’s desk by Dec. 15, about two and a half weeks from today.
“You all are on the front lines and you're giving us a kind of perspective that we wouldn't get just from reading research reports and briefings and all that,” he said. “This is something we'll carry with us as we work on a plan.”