Above: It was a packed house for the School Building Committee meeting Tuesday night at Swift Community Center.
Residents voice concerns while officials debate funding’s role in solving issues.
Maintenance issues at EG High School and a pivot to a new build at Hanaford were the main focus of a three-hour School Building Committee meeting on Tuesday night that over 30 people attended in person.
Ongoing High School Maintenance Issues
Since the end of November, EGHS has had days without heat, students evacuated following a burnt extension cord, and leaks from water built up between a section of the roof and the roof membrane.
“I can assure you that the roof is not going to collapse,” said Bob Wilmarth, Director of Facilities for EGPS, speaking to concerned residents on Tuesday. “There’s a section of the building where the roof is leaking actively. It’s not because the roof is bad. It’s because water is trapped in between [the roof and roof membrane], and it’s expensive to fix.”
The other section of the building under continued maintenance is a repair to a heating pipe in “one tiny section of hallway,” Wilmarth said. When asked when these maintenance issues would be resolved, he said they would be resolved in the “next couple of weeks.”
At the meeting, officials pointed to roughly $15 million in deferred maintenance for the high school, with Wilmarth saying, “It is down from $60 [million] ten years ago.”
However, many residents in attendance questioned why the maintenance issues could not be solved faster and called for a timeline, punch list, and more communication from school officials about these ongoing problems. (Read how students feel about the condition of the high school HERE.)
“I don’t know exactly what the term deferred maintenance means,” said resident Richard Collette. “For me, I hear that, and I hear the work is being deferred. My taxes are not being deferred, nor is my kid’s education. They’re there experiencing this right now.”
Both Wilmarth and School Committee Member Tim Munoz said that fixing these issues comes down to money. In the days prior to the meeting, the state approved $500,000 in emergency funds to aid with the high school maintenance issues, according to Maggie Baker, finance director for EGPS.
[Author’s note, 1/5/24: The process for requesting RIDE approval of $500,000 emergency funds was started Dec. 4 and approved Dec. 18. The $500,000 comes from a $5 million bond approved by EG voters in 2019. Currently, EGSD can seek approval of up to $500,000 annually for capital improvement projects that can then be submitted for housing aid reimbursement of 35 to 40 percent from the $5 million bond. How to utilize the $500,000 was discussed at a Nov. 8 school facilities subcommittee meeting.]
“The town appropriates money for the schools,” said Munoz. “When the town appropriates something under 3 percent, that makes it a lot harder to pay for maintenance.”
According to Rhode Island law, schools are required to spend “a minimum of three percent (3%) of the operating budget shall be dedicated exclusively for maintenance expenditures.…”
In the last budget cycle, the School Committee approved a budget that was ultimately $500,000 less than what they originally asked the Town Council to allocate. As was reported, that money would likely have been earmarked for hiring staff.
One town official who disagreed with the notion that money is at the center of these issues is Town Manager Andy Nota, who said, “It’s not a lack of funding.” He pointed to his five years on the municipal side of things in town and said, “What I haven’t been able to find is that request.”
He said he was “completely embarrassed” by some of the “true photos” used in the marketing material for the school bond referendum that highlight the needs of the high school. “And I’m confident that in their own way, School Committee and school staff are also embarrassed by not being able to address some of those immediate issues that need to be dealt with.” He then added, “We need to do something very differently, whether it’s with staffing, whether it’s with outsourcing professional services, or whether it’s with a concerted effort.”
Many in attendance clapped, and one resident even stood following Nota’s remarks, which finished with, “We should just put our head down, do the work, and get it done.”
Possible Hanaford Pivot
Both Nota and Munoz mentioned being surprised when Philip Conte, president and CEO of the architecture firm StudioJAED, said Tuesday that a new school at Hanaford might be “more cost-effective” than a “major” renovation and addition at the site. The school would have four tracks (aka classes per grade); the new Frenchtown will hold five tracks.
Munoz asked Conte what had changed in the last few weeks because previous discussions had centered around an addition and renovation model being the best direction for the school. Conte said discussions with Wilmarth about how much of the school could be saved has changed his mind.
“Now I’m looking at what I thought was maybe keeping 40 percent of the building, now it may be 30 percent of the building,” Conte said. “At some point, it might not make financial sense.”
Despite stating that a new build might be more cost-effective, Conte presented the committee with both options and will use a third party estimator to price them out. Both projects would use the existing footprint of the school.
Before the Rhode Island Department of Education stage II deadline Feb. 15, the School Committee and the Town Council will need to approve one of the two alternatives for Hanaford.
The School Committee meets next at 6 p.m. in the Cole Middle School library on Tuesday, Jan. 9.