Sooner or Later?
After years of deferred maintenance, North Providence has schools that need major repairs or replacement. But will taxpayers foot the bill for an estimated $75 million price tag to solve the problem? The reinstatement of a state program that will reimburse a substantial amount of those costs may make the price tag a more attractive sell - and prompt other communities to tackle construction projects they’ve put on hold the past several years.
Click here to read the Torrado architects report (large pdf).
For nearly a century the two-story brick school on Mineral Spring Avenue has educated thousands of students living in the eastern end of North Providence.
Built in the 1920, Marieville Elementary has served the community well. But take a closer look inside and you’ll see a building that has become a headache for maintenance crews and the administration.
Outdated electrical and heating systems, and a deteriorating roof on a gymnasium added in 1960 that just cost taxpayers $19,000 to repair. No one in town would argue that Marieville has become a money pit.
And it is not alone.
Smith: ``I was somewhat shocked at what I saw out in the schools that they had been neglected for many years.’’
Melinda Smith became school superintendent in North Providence 2 ½ years ago. Years of deferred maintenance left Smith shaking her head as she toured the nine school buildings across town.
Smith: ``And I didn’t realize there was so much work that needed to be done in the area of electrical work. Then the roofs, it’s something you just don’t focus on until you get a leak.’’
Marieville School, located adjacent to these power lines, is one of three elementary schools showing their age, along with Stephen Olney and Maguire - all are more than 80 years old.
Hummel: ``Where is your greatest need right now?’’
Smith: ``We have three buildings that were built in the 1930s so those three schools need immediate upgrade. Marieville and Maguire, the exit out of the top floors is by fire escape, so God forbid that the stairwells were on fire, the students would have to exit out the windows down a fire escape.’’
The school department formed a 12-member school building and hired Torrado Architects to take a comprehensive look at all of the school buildings. In early 2014 it issued this 431-page report.
Smith says the company came up with more than a dozen options, one costing upwards of $120 million. That has since been revised down to $75 million and calls for replacing Stephen Olney and Maguire with two brand new schools and eventually knocking down Marieville. The figure also includes $16 million in pressing upgrades and repairs needed throughout the system.
Smith: ``It does give you pause because of the enormity of the project. And the just overall cost; if that happens and we’re able to put everything in place we’re going to have schools that are going to carry us well into the next 20 years with being really 21st century learning environments. So I’m pretty excited about it, but is it a hard sell? Of course it’s a hard sell.
Three other elementary schools built in the 1960s are in better shape, as are the town’s two middle schools. And the high school underwent a major renovation two decades ago after a fire. But it is the three older elementary schools that are on everyone’s radar.
Autiello: ``Right now our schools are in rough, very rough shape.’’
Town Council President Dino Autiello was a student at Stephen Olney elementary in the 1990s. He said no one disagrees that many of the schools need major work. But he also notes North Providence has overcome a financial crisis the past five years and is finally on solid footing - both good news and bad when it comes to selling residents on a massive spending project.
Autiello: ``So there’s a fine balance of protecting the taxpayers and also doing good by the students.’’
While North Providence grapples with a specific gamplan, the state has made it a little easier for communities faced with similar school repair costs.
The General Assembly last spring lifted a moratorium on a state reimbursement program that had brought new school construction statewide to a virtual halt. For North Providence it now means the state will reimburse the town for 56 percent of the cost to construct new or renovate existing buildings.
Smith: ``I think for North Providence it’s essential that we have that reimbursement or we won’t able to even tackle the bit problems we’re having with our facilities. There are three buildings that really need our attention: If we don’t have that reimbursement the district and the community would never be able to support the whole project.’’
At the same time Governor Raimondo included $20 million in this year’s budget for shovel-ready repair projects for schools across the state, providing up to $1 million per project. North Providence last month submitted a dozen such projects to the Department of Education for consideration.
Smith: ``Those are the shovel-ready projects that we can get done, but it’s not going to address the very issues that are making me lose sleep at night. My worry is, North Providence isn’t the only district that’s in the same situation, so how will the Department of Education and the state prioritize who goes first?’’
Taxpayers will likely be asked to decide in November of 2016 whether to pass a bond for the school renovation and construction plan - if the town council agrees to put the question on the ballot. But Autiello says one of the problems is the council has not seen a specific plan yet.
Autiello: ``We walk into a building facility meeting and council members are getting yelled at: `We want a commitment, we want a commitment.’ It’s like, What are we committing to? There’s no plan in place yet. We need a concrete plan in place that is going to be the best plan for the taxpayers of this town, a hundred years from now. This project needs to last.’’
Hummel: ``That seems like a very long time away if you’ve got emergency repairs. Are you concerned about what happens between now and a year from November?’’
Autiello: ``Of course I am, I’ve been to every school, I’m a product of the North Providence school system. But I’ve been stressing we need a solid plan in place, for the emergency upgrades as well as the whole rebuilding process.’’
The superintendent says the department has hired an educational consultant to help get community feedback and ultimately narrow down options for a bond question to present to the council and the public.
Smith: ``The worry is that as they age things start to blow up. Just this year the hot water boiler at the high school went. The elevator broke at the high school, so those were unbudgeted expenses and I expect those unbudgeted expenses are going to start to occur more frequently.’’
Fontaine: ``The maintenance, the heat, the plumbing that the children have to eat in the gymnasium, there’s no cafeteria.’’
Lynn Fontaine heads a group that is advocating for the school repairs. She attended Stephen Olney as a child and has a daughter there now.
Hummel: ``At the end of the day what are you trying to do?’’
Fonataine: ``We want to get our kids in great facilities. We want them to learn in an environment where they can grow and have a great education. That’s what we’re looking to do. If we don’t do something now about the schools, it’s only going to get worse. And eventually we’re going to have to pay. And when is it, sooner or later? And if we don’t do something now while we’re in a financially good place, I think it would just be worse later on.’’
Hummel: ``What if it goes down in November?’’
Autiello: ``We’ve talked about that. You have a lot of taxpayers in this town, whose children are no longer in the school system. Do they vote for it? I don’t know I can’t answer that question.’’
Hummel: ``If it doesn’t go through is there a Plan B?’’
Smith: ``So right now we don’t have a Plan B and that’s something we really have to seriously think about it. Because I’m not sure if it will pass. We’re going to do our darndest to make sure that the community is out there to support it. But if it doesn’t pass we can’t leave these 1930 buildings in the condition that they’re in: Our town leaders are going to have to address it somehow. What we haven’t done yet and maybe what we should think about doing is opening up those schools and letting the community see the condition of the schools and invite them in.’’
In North Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.