Report states schools require $53 million in repairs

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A statewide report by Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. assessing every school building has been released, providing a third party, impartial assessment that approximately $53 million worth of work is needed to bring Johnston’s schools into the modern era.

“Obviously our buildings are old. Our buildings were built for the Industrial Age, which we’ve moved away from at this point. However we’re trying to retrofit old buildings with new concepts, and that’s difficult,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. “We need new buildings, particularly our elementary schools are aging buildings. The high school and the middle school are newer than some of our elementary schools, but the whole district needs an upgrade in terms of facilities.”

Jacobs assessed each school in each district based on five priorities of needs, with Priority 1 being the “Mission Critical Concerns” that include the direct issues that need to be addressed to ensure the school can remain operating in a safe, code-compliant manner, such as replacing a fire alarm system.

In Johnston, about 55 percent of the deficiencies were defined by Jacobs as either Priority 3 (short-term conditions) issues such as site improvements and plumbing deficiencies, with 26 percent categorized as Priority 4 (long-term requirements) issues such as paint finishing, removal of old equipment and installation of ancillary items such as cabinets.

“We’ve done a lot of work, we’ve done new windows at Barnes, we’ve done new heating systems at most of our schools, we’ve upgraded science labs at the high school. But a structure is a structure and that’s what we have to deal with,” said DiLullo. “There’s been new roofs put on buildings, and generally they look good and generally they’re functional but it’s going to take a lot to upgrade.”

While DiLullo said that Jacobs’ financial estimate for how much the district needs to reinvigorate the schools was an accurate assesment, there are differing opinions on what needs constitute what level priority.

“It’s not mandatory, it’s that a company came in, evaluated all the buildings with the idea of 21st century education needs. When they look at all the buildings, obviously they’re not up to standard when you look at those concepts because structurally they’re still square classrooms, and furnishings are still traditional furnishings for the most part,” said DiLullo. “We retrofit, we provided technology in all our classrooms we provide equipment in all of our classrooms, we make do with exchanging desks with tables so kids can work cooperatively in groups. So there’s a lot of what we could do but it never really meets that standard of the 21st century school. In newer school buildings, there are cooperative learning areas, there are pods of areas that are specialized for what students are learning high quality technology, high tech furnishings, its all in these new buildings.”

DiLullo acknowledged that the Jacobs report validated the need to renovate the heating system at Johnston High School, which it identified as a Priority 3 need. According to the report, for master planning purposes a 5-year need was developed to provide an understanding of the current need as well as the projected needs in the near future. For Johnston Senior High School the 5-year need was estimated at $22,217,133.

 

“I think the huge issue at the high school is that it has an aging heating and ventilation system. That really does need to be revamped. It has no air conditioning. It’s really infrastructure stuff in terms of upgrading a facility like that, and obviously when you talk about $22 million, you have to question whether or not it’s worth putting that kind of money into an older building and it would probably be more cost effective to come up with a whole new building,” said DiLullo.

DiLullo went on to explain that costs for building a new school is determined by the square footage, and to rebuild a high school would cost well over $22 million for a school of a comparable size. He was hesitant to provide an estimate, as costs would include everything that the district put into it, such as new furnishings and new technology equipment, but that the town would be looking at “millions and millions of dollars.”

When addressing the district’s elementary schools, the superintendent, mayor, and school committee chair seem to be on the same page and are looking at a bigger picture moving forward.

“In Johnston, if we were to build a new elementary school we’d want a new site, a larger campus, a larger school with adequate parking and access. Right now, three of our elementary schools have some difficulty in terms of traffic, Windsor Hill, Brown, and Barnes. We have a lot of staff there, parking is an issue, and both Barnes and Windsor Hill are on dead ends. It would make no sense to build a new building on those sites again,” said DiLullo.

“If we were to build a new elementary school, that’s what I’d like to see, I would like to see a campus style facility. My vision would be pods from a center building, so we’re essentially maintaining the identity of the individual elementary schools but its all in one building. It’s more cost efficient, you have all the transportation going there, you have the services there, it just makes more sense.”

Added School Committee Chair Janice Mele, “As far as a campus, that is my dream. But there’s a land issue. The state tells us we need a certain amount of space per student, and it’s tough to find a spot. I’d like to see different wings for different schools as well, so that the students would still be with their same neighborhood. That would be ideal. ”

“I’d like to see us build a complex. We’d have to find the land, build the complex and then you could have a big complex with three wings where you could still have a Thornton wing, a Windsor Hill wing, so you bus to one school,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “That’s my dream, if you will, and it has to be up to the taxpayers. And I think by us stabilizing the tax base now, maybe the taxpayers would be more receptive to voting on a bond referendum question to pay for it. If you look at it that way, you would save money. You’d save on the upkeep and maintenance.”

DiLullo added that he thought it would be much more cost effective to build a new building, but that they wouldn’t replace all the buildings at once. He stated that in Johnston, all parties have been searching for a site for a while, and there was a real concerted effort made about 10 years ago to look for a site for a new elementary school, but that a suitable location proved challenging.

“We’re moving forward with renovating our buildings as best as we can. We continue to move forward with keeping our buildings up, our long range goal is that, at the very least, we need a new elementary school,” he said. “I think our schools are well maintained, I think our schools are safe, we keep up with all of our inspections, we do annual inspections. Our buildings are safe for our students.”

Both Mayor Polisena and School Committee Chair Mele agreed with that assessment.

“As far as the schools go, I think they’re obviously clean. I think Dave Cournoyer (Facilities Manager) does a great job. We just gave them two years ago a million dollars for an alarm system so they’re safe. We put new fire windows in,” said Polisena. “I would agree with that 1,000 percent. I have to tell you, they are very, very lucky that Dave Cournoyer is the Facilities Director. The schools are definitely safe. They’re not sick schools they’re safe schools.”

Mele added, “Well I feel the schools are very safe, and academically they’re right up there, it’s unbelievable. When the report came out, our superintendent, he’s phenomenal, he called me right away and wanted me to know that the report was coming out,” she said. “He was going to look into it and make sure we do what we can. Our schools are kept up, and they’re beautiful. They’re clean and safe.”

Going forward, Polisena said he would like to see a committee formed, with members of the school committee, town council, the mayors office, members of the public and representatives of the teachers union, to look at future possibilities within the school district.

“Would it be nice to have brand new schools with central air conditioning and all LED lighting, absolutely. But we have to do it in a calculated way. First, we’d have to go before the voters and see if they want to spend money to build schools, there’s matching funds and it would have to be explained very thoroughly,” he said. He added that he foresees this action taken in the future, possibly by the 2020 election.

“I’d like to see this happen during my tenure. We need a complete facelift, it’s for the future of the town, it’s for the children that aren’t even born yet. But the taxpayers who’ll foot the bill need to know what they’re going to pay for. So it will have to be a totally transparent process,” said Polisena.

The Jacobs report on Johnston is a 174 page document, which breaks down repairs an a per school basis. The report may be found at http://www.ride.ri.gov/FundingFinance/SchoolBuildingAuthority/FacilityDataInformation.aspx

(With reports from Ethan Hartley)

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