By JOHN HOWELL After all the debate over the future of Warwick's high schools and the decision to renovate Pilgrim and Toll Gate for an estimated cost of $302 million, the city could be on the path for two new schools. The school administration is
After all the debate over the future of Warwick’s high schools and the decision to renovate Pilgrim and Toll Gate for an estimated cost of $302 million, the city could be on the path for two new schools.
The school administration is scheduled to meet with the Department of Education (RIDE) on Aug. 10 to review the plan to upgrade the two buildings to meet today’s educational standards, but from preliminary discussions with RIDE, two new buildings – presumably built on the existing school properties while the current buildings remain open – is preferable to revamping the existing schools as they operate.
Superintendent Lynn Dambruch said Friday that RIDE expressed reservations with the city’s plan to renovate the two schools – $176.7 million for Pilgrim and $125.4 million for Toll Gate – over a period of three years for each school. She said RIDE has concerns over interruptions in the educational process and what unforeseen delays and unexpected issues could mean to completing both schools. On the other hand, if the School Committee chooses to go with new buildings, they would be designed to meet community educational goals and expectations from the ground up.
Key questions are cost, and how much of that would be reimbursed by the state; how the buildings would be located on existing sites; and the timing of the projects. Critical to the process, in fact essential, is community support. Voters would need to approve funding of a plan whether renovations or new buildings. The school administration aims to have that question come before voters on the 2022 general election ballot.
It’s an ambitious timetable.
How much might the schools cost? Based on the state’s newest high school – East Providence, which will be opening this academic year – each school would be in the range of $190 million.
If the decision is new schools, the administration would need to have preliminary designs of the buildings in order to gain RIDE approval along with cost projections before bringing the plan before the City Council. The plan would then require state legislative approval to appear on the ballot.
Steve Gothberg, director of school buildings and grounds who attended the preliminary RIDE meeting, has already started an analysis of what it would take to build new schools. On top of his list is funding.
Based on its ranking of community wealth, Warwick would receive 35 percent reimbursement under the renovation plan. However, Gothberg explains, should the city take certain steps including demolition of existing buildings that meet RIDE qualifications, as much of 52.5 percent of the cost of the new schools would be reimbursed. While the price tag of new schools would be more than renovated buildings, the overall cost to Warwick taxpayers could end up being close to renovations.
Gothberg rhetorically poses the question, “how do we give them [the community] what they want?”
Mayor Frank Picozzi, who served as School Committee chair, favors new schools over attempting to upgrade the existing buildings.
Picozzi said he purposely remained silent on the issue to allow the committee to go through the process of evaluating how best to upgrade the high schools. Now that RIDE has expressed reservations, the mayor said he doesn’t think renovations will work – especially in the case of Pilgrim, which is the older of the two schools and is so spread out.
As for renovations, he said, “you’re going to disrupt education, there’s no other way.”
Gothberg doesn’t foresee a problem in building a new Pilgrim High on the 37-acre site of the existing building. A new Pilgrim was one of those options considered when the committee initiated the process of examining options to upgrade the two high schools. At the time it was felt the northeastern neighborhoods of the city would unfairly benefit over Toll Gate, although that school would undergo extensive improvements. Alternate proposals including a single new high school and one high school with two campuses were considered before the committee settled on basically investing equally in improvements to the existing buildings.
A single new high school was rejected based on the size of enrollment, lack of a potential centralized site and transportation requirements.
Locating a new Toll Gate is more problematic because of the rocky site.
“Toll Gate is very difficult,” said Gothberg, “we don’t have athletic [fields and courts] options.”
“The goal is to give equal facilities to both [schools],” he said. Being considered is the demolition of the former Drum Rock Elementary School, which is now being used for Warwick Area Career and Technical Center programs. Whether the center would also be relocated was not discussed.
Because of the size of the project – two schools being built one after the other – Gothberg foresees hiring a construction manager rather than a single contractor to direct the process. The schools would be built on a staggered system in tandem with design being the first step. As design of one school is completed, construction would start, as design of the second school is ongoing. The steps would be roughly a year apart with the overall project taking five years. Assuming the plan is to go with two new schools and it meets voter approval, the new schools could be operational by 2027.
Can we wait that long, would both Toll Gate and Pilgrim require costly upgrades – roofs and HVAC systems being most costly – within the next six years?
“We have done everything we need to do to keep it [both schools] going for the next five to 10 years,” Gothberg said.
Dambruch said Frank Locker who was retained to assess community needs and support, as well as offer options for the two schools, would be involved if the course of the new schools is the chosen path.
As the School Committee meets on Aug. 10, Dambruch expects to have a report of the meeting with RIDE earlier in the day at that time.
The office of the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education had no comment at this time.