State Report: School Capital Budget Far Too Low, While Number of Students on Rise

by | Oct 1, 2017

The rear classroom “stacks” of Cole Middle School, the newest school in the district.

School Facilities Director Bob Wilmarth painted the picture this way about the state’s school buildings assessment report: “My feelings about the assessment are three: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Wilmarth proceeded to lay out just what he meant during a report at the Sept. 19 School Committee meeting (you can watch that part of their meeting here).

“The good news is there weren’t any surprises in this report,” he said. According the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) report – which was based on tours of EG public school buildings in 2016 – the district has nearly $30 million in deferred maintenance. Wilmarth said, based on his experience, that number is more realistically around $15 million. For instance, he said, the report recommends putting sprinklers in the high school. Wilmarth said the fire department didn’t think the district needed to do that mainly because the building is made of cinderblock and concrete.

“It’s a $2 million project that doesn’t necessarily need to be priority one,” he said.

Most of the recommendations were lower priority, such as helping kids hear better in the classroom and replacing all the piping in the buildings. That one, he said, was “not a reasonable thing to do. You would tear down the building before you replaced all the piping.”

The RIDE report also said the district had $8 million in technology deferred maintenance, which Wilmarth suggested might be high.

“If anything … our estimates here would be roughly half” for deferred maintenance of what the report is suggesting.

But that took Wilmarth to the “bad”: “We’re not budgeting nearly enough in capital improvement. This year, we budgeted $150,000. That’s 5 percent of what RIDE is suggesting we budget for capital improvements on a yearly basis.”

Supt. Victor Mercurio had originally budgeted nearly $500,000 in capital improvements for the 2018 fiscal year but that was cut down by the School Committee even before the Town Council gave the schools far less money than the School Committee had requested.

Wilmarth said he thought $1.5 million would be a “huge” start to help put the schools in a “healthy place.”

And the ugly?

It’s all about the projected demographics, he said. According to the report, enrollment is expected to increase 9.6 percent over the next 10 years. That hits the district hard because it’s already above what RIDE considers appropriate by more than 100 students.

Enrollment for this school year is around 2,537 students (the figure used by RIDE is determined each October), up from 2,504 last year – both exceeding 2004, the year with the highest enrollment (2,466) up until now.

“There’s just no way to ignore that going forward,” Wilmarth said. “Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math, it’s a $40 million number all day long to build the sort of space we would need…. It’s significant.”

“We need to take stock of our district … and find out where we’re going to zig and zag to make the best use of our money,” he concluded.

The School Committee will be discussing building maintenance and capacity at its meeting Tuesday.

(You can find the full RIDE report here. Page 22 offers a graph of all the school districts in the state and their needs by priority. East Greenwich is better off than most districts. Page 39 gives the by-school assessments. Page 44 offers demographic information about each school in the district.)

– Elizabeth F. McNamara

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