City pursues two new high schools

Posted 8/12/21

By ARDEN BASTIA After the latest meeting with the Rhode Island Department of Education on Tuesday, Warwick is considering building two new high schools, instead of renovating Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools. "We looked at the original visioning and

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City pursues two new high schools


After the latest meeting with the Rhode Island Department of Education on Tuesday, Warwick is considering building two new high schools, instead of renovating Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools.

“We looked at the original visioning and thought process from when the previous administration was here, and the theory was that we could do close to brand new schools with renovations for less money,” said Steve Gothberg, director of construction and capital projects, in an interview on Wednesday. “When we brought it to RIDE a few weeks ago, it became apparent to RIDE and ourselves that between phasing the renovations and the costs, the [cost] between new schools and renovations would be almost miniscule.”

The previous plans, created in collaboration with education planner Frank Locker, totaled about $330 million. The recommended plan for Pilgrim included a new two-story addition across the front of the building, a new façade for the outside of the school, better safety and security controls, new sports fields with synthetic turf, and increased parking. For Toll Gate, Locker recommended a third story addition, a redesigned entryway into the building, enlarged bridges, news commons and media center, demolishing Drum Rock School, and new athletic fields with synthetic turf.

The price tag would remain relatively the same, explained Gothberg, and the overall cost to Warwick taxpayers would also remain close to renovation costs.

Gothberg said a large part of the decision for two new schools came from the “nightmare” of interrupting student learning.

“A whole class of students would be impacted and in a school that would be under renovation for their whole high school experience,” he said. “We have to consider the impact of student’s education. Would it be worth the effort?”

Although he didn’t share specifics, since the project is in the early stages, Gothberg has identified three possible locations for a new Toll Gate. Gothberg said he doesn’t predict an issue building a new Pilgrim on the existing plot. The next steps, he explained, are site explorations.

“The theory with two high schools is both schools stay open while we build new, and there is virtually no impact to student education,” he said. “To purchase or rent temporary classrooms, power those up, and provide plumbing facilities, the cost keeps going up and up.”

RIDE still plans to offer a reimbursement plan for Warwick, starting at 35 percent.

“We’re in the throes of Stage I,” he said, explaining that the key to getting reimbursed is hitting all deadlines.

Warwick schools must present the Stage I plan to RIDE by September 15, and then the Stage II plan by February 15, 2022 in order to be before the City Council and General Assembly in May 2022. If all goes to plan, the measure will be on the ballot in November 2022.

“There are bonuses on reimbursement that expire in December 2022,” said Gothberg. “We would have to have a construction manager signed onboard by that date. If we hit all those dates, there are three additional 5 percent reimbursement bonuses, and additional energy bonuses of 2.5 percent with each new building.”

Gothberg also explained, “some things are not reimbursable, but we would get reimbursed on 95 percent.”

There’s support for all new rather than renovations.

Deborah Lage, secretary at Pilgrim High School, shared in an email on August 6 that she is in favor of building a new Pilgrim.

“Because they have not kept up with the maintenance and the new technology that we need, I would agree that it would probably be less expensive (if they build it correctly) to build a new Pilgrim,” she wrote, noting that wiring, air conditioning, and heating systems all need major repairs. “The WiFi constantly goes out and the cost of repairing has to be too expensive. The ceiling tiles need replacing throughout the building, not just in the front entryway.”

Toll Gate High School Principal Candace Caluori said in a brief interview on Tuesday that “as we move forward especially with new technology and teaching styles, obviously the building is not current. Students don’t learn the same way they do when the building was first built. In order to move forward do we need major upgrades? Yes we do.”

Although she wouldn’t say no to a new school, Calouri said she thought it was “a waste of money” to tear down a school that is “still useful.”

“I’m surprised that RIDE did not acknowledge the hard work that went into using a current footprint of a building and making it work as best we can,” she said.

Gerald Habershaw, principal at Pilgrim High School, says the new schools are “needed.”

“This building is past its prime,” he shared in a brief interview on Wednesday. “We need state of the art schools. We really need to get rid of the buildings that are just crumbling.”

He supports the idea of a new Pilgrim, but really wants to see new athletics fields at both high schools.

“They have to turf our fields,” he said. “They’re long lasting and grass fields get beat up with wear and tear. With turf fields you can have multiple sports play on the same one.”

Habershaw is particularly excited about the few disruptions to student learning.

“All the students who would be interrupted won’t get the chance to be in a new building, so why disrupt them any further,” he said. “I agree with as few interruptions as possible.”

Outdated schools aren’t just a challenge for Warwick, but an issue facing schools across the country.

According to a press release from Senator Jack Reed’s office issued on August 5, 91 members of Congress penned a joint letter calling for the prioritization of funds to repair crumbling school infrastructure.

“An investment of at least $100 billion in school facilities will be critical,” the letter reads. “A June 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office on the state of school infrastructure—the agency’s first report on the subject since 1966—found that 54 percent of school districts across the country must replace or update major systems in more than half their buildings. The 2016 State of Our Schools Report found that state and local governments spend $46 billion less than what is required to update and maintain their school facilities.”

Reed, among other Senators, introduced the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2021 in late January. It went before the Senate finance committee but hasn’t progressed further.

This legislation would provide $100 billion in funds for states for local competitive grants for school repair, renovation, and construction. States will focus assistance on communities with the greatest financial need, encourage green construction practices, and expand access to high-speed broadband to ensure that all students have access to digital learning, according to the press release.


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