April 23, 2009

Warwick School Committee Hears School Closing Recommendation

Marc Comtois

Faced with a shrinking revenues (ie; state aid), dropping enrollment and increasing costs, the Warwick School Department has proposed, for the second straight year, that part of the solution lay in closing an elementary school (the School Committee already renegotiated the teacher contract--though the amount of savings could have been more). Last year, two schools were closed and another converted into a city-wide learning center. Throughout the process, the administration was taken to task for not being transparent enough and accusations that they had already had their mind made up contributed to an already inherently negative process.

This time around, the Consolidation Advisory Committee (CAC) held several open meetings (though with no opportunity for public comment) and posted information to their website as they investigated which of 6 potential elementary schools should be considered for closure. They eventually narrowed their list down to two schools, John Greene and Warwick Neck, for further review. In the end, the CAC voted unanimously to close John Greene*.

Last night, as scheduled, the CAC presented their findings and recommendation to the Warwick School Committee. Several John Greene parents and a few students and staff were in attendance and, regardless of the fact that the meeting was not scheduled as a "public comment" session (those will be April 30th, 6-9 PM and May 1st, 3-6 PM), they intended to be heard (a radio ad campaign aired over the last few days probably contributed to the attendance and the feeling in the crowd). Despite an explanation from School Committee Chair Christopher Friel that this was a presentation--not a forum for public comment--audience members interrupted the presentation several times with shouted questions and comments. At least two people were removed for continually disrupting the proceeding.

According to the information presented, while closing Warwick Neck would save $17,000 more than closing John Greene (closing either would save in the mid $800,000s, according to updated numbers presented last night), other factors favored closing Greene over Warwick Neck (most important, it seemed, was impacting the least amount of students--in both sending and receiving schools--as possible).

However, information provided to the School Committee last night seemed to undermine the contention that cost-savings for closing either school was equal. In 2006, Warwick voters approved a $25 million bond to address school infrastructure problems (the fact that the money has yet to be appropriated is another story and a major bone of contention between the School Department and Mayor Avedisian). As part of that process, the School Department canvassed all of the schools and asked personnel and parents to identify any work that needed to be done and could be funded via the bond. This "wish list" was used by the CAC to evaluate what costs could be avoided by closing each school. One of those items was $471,650 for repairs to the roof of Warwick Neck. In all, John Greene reported $157,025 in prospective repairs and Warwick Neck reported $646,255. To the average taxpayer, that approximately half-million dollar difference in "avoided costs" seems like a substantial amount and, on the face of it, indicates that Warwick Neck should have been the school selected for closure based on cost-savings alone.

They did, in fact, get a report specifically concerning Wawick Neck's roof:

Paul Jansson (sic), Construction Coordinator discussed the projected improvements from approved bond 2006 (high priority). He noted that the Sherman and Warwick Neck roof projects were included for repair with this bond money. If the funds do not get released, Mr. Jansson said that both elementary schools (and Pilgrim HS) would constantly need to be watched and local personnel would be required to continue to patch work as necessary.
Mr. Jansson addressed a letter which challenged the estimating methodology for re-roofing. In reference to the Warwick Neck Elementary School roof, Mr. Jansson said the first issue is the existing roof condition. According to his records, the last roof replacement was in 1989 and 1992. His staff has evaluated the roof as one of the top 5 that will require replacement in the future. He prepares “conceptual” or “ball-park” estimates due to the unknown conditions that will affect a new roofing project. For instance, asbestos, adequate roof drains, condition of the structural deck and when will this work be done…one year, two to three years, five years. All of these factors will dramatically impact the roof cost. Upon completion of investigations and new designs prepared, the estimates are then adjusted accordingly.
Again, the administration didn't adequately justify why this half-million dollar difference was apparently not a factor. While they did explain that John Greene's roof was the same age as Warwick Neck's, and had in fact been patched a few more times in recent years than Warwick Neck, they never provided a dollar figure for potential roof repairs to Greene.

Thus, instead of having the foresight to proactively conduct an updated review of infrastructure needs for both Greene and Warwick Neck, they relied on an old report (though with updated numbers) that implies that Greene's roof is OK and heard testimony that bolstered the argument for closing Warwick Neck because of the roof costs. So the half-million dollar bill for Warwick Neck was left out there to dangle and, in the eyes of the public, serves to undercut the financial impetus for closing a school at all.**

Perhaps, during next week's public comment section, they will be prepared to answer that question.
*There was a minor controversy surrounding the difference between the initial, ballot vote of 6-1 in favor of closing Greene and the public re-vote that was 7-0. As was explained last night, the person who voted "nay" was confused by the ballot the first time around. The reason for the confusion stemmed from the final vote being between John Greene and John Wickes (not Warwick Neck). There are considerable questions surrounding the impact that potential airport expansion will have on John Wickes and the CAC apparently thought it worth considering getting ahead of events and closing a school that may eventually need to be closed. However, they unanimously decided to stick with closing one of the schools that was initially considered and extensively reviewed.

**Similarly, Chairman Friel asked if there were any figures to indicate what the actual savings were after closing the two schools last year. The administration was unprepared, but promised to forward those numbers to the committee. Again, a lack of foresight: one would think such a question would be anticipated.