On November 6, voters will be asked to vote approve or reject on question one, which is titled “Rhode Island School Buildings $250,000,000.”
The question states that the money would be “to provide state assistance to cities and towns for the construction of new public schools and renovation of existing public schools.” Further, the explanation given in the Voter Information Handbook states: “These bonds will be used to improve Pre-K-12 public school facilities and equip them for 21st century learning. Every school district will be eligible to receive matching funds paid for by these bonds. Funding will be available for public school projects that address the immediate health and safety needs, early childhood education, career and technical education, and other educational enhancements. A portion of the bond proceeds will be made available to school districts each of the next five years, and no more than $100 million of the $250 million authorization may be used in any one year.”
What does that mean for Cranston Public Schools?
To really have a firm understanding of what it means for CPS, Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse believes it’s important to understand the path the district has been on in recent years in regards to its schools.
“Back in 2015 the Jacobs Corporation, an international company, came in and looked at every school building in the state,” she said. “That’s kind of the genesis of where that $250 million number came from. They were asked how much it would cost to fix everything. Our Cranston Public Schools report came out saying that at a minimum, to just keep kids warm, safe and dry, it would cost us $189 million, just to fix things, not to improve anything. Now that report is almost four years old and each year that you’re not fixing things, as the years increase, the cost to replace things goes up and in the meantime, more things break.”
Over the past several years, the district has spent a portion of bond money on fire suppression systems, adding sprinkler systems to all of the buildings and because of that, new ceilings and new lighting had to go in as well.
“This was just for code compliance,” Nota-Masse said. “This did not impact instruction. While these repairs were needed, they did not enhance the overall building.”
In 2006, a middle schools bond initially designed specifically for middle school upgrades, including science labs at Park View, Hugh B. Bain and Western Hills Middle Schools, was approved.
“However, that’s when we had the downturn in the economy and the city didn’t go to bond for that money because of the economic state at the time,” she said. “Years later, the science rooms and windows at Park View were done, because we could only afford to do one building because so much time had passed. We spent about $4.8 million just to do that. Bain and Western Hills didn’t get anything out of that money and we couldn’t do equal work at those schools.”
She noted that security updates have taken place recently from the schools budget.
“We’ve spent just under $1 million with all the new cameras, locks and keyless entry systems in all of our schools as of June,” she said. “These new improvements are projects that are not done quickly or cheaply. Over four years we reallocated money and put it aside in our capital improvements budget to do security projects.”
She explained that improvements to the locks on classroom doors addresses ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) compliance and allows the teachers to be able to lock them from the inside in the event of an emergency, something that was not possible for all classrooms prior to the upgrades.
Each of the projects undertaken must be applied for and approved by the RI Department of Education with benchmarks and standards that must be met before approval is given.
“The RI Department of Education and the General Assembly would only approve projects around health and safety of students when things got rough with the economy,” said Ray Votto, Chief Operating Officer for the district.
“Edgewood Highland Elementary School got a whole new HVAC systems, air conditioning and heating systems, but we did that through borrowing $2.8 million through the RI Infrastructure Bank from the state,” he said. “The flood followed those improvements, but it didn’t impact the new HVAC system and no city dollars were used.”
Both Votto and Nota-Masse felt it was important to note that for all city bond money borrowed, the state reimburses the city.
“The city of Cranston gets back 52 cents for every dollar spent,” Votto said. That money in turn, is reinvested for future projects.
“The key for voters to understand is that Cranston gets at least 52 cents back on every dollar, and in the future may get as much as 72 cents back, depending on the project being done,” he added. “The cost to taxpayers is not as great as it may seem.”
With the publication of the Jacobs Report, Nota-Masse said the district now had in writing, what they already knew, a validation of the needs seen daily in the 30 buildings across the city, and Fielding Nair International (FNI) was brought in to help further assess the next steps for the district.
“Up to that point, what we were doing was like putting a new engine into an old car,” she said. “We were putting some very expensive Band-Aids on buildings. Some of our classrooms are still using chalkboards.”
FNI used EW Burman, a general contractor, to go through the buildings from top to bottom to determine what would schools need to be brought up to 21st century learning spaces. A profile was made for each building and a recommendation as to whether to renovate, add on or re-purpose the buildings was also made.
“In some cases, it’s okay to renovate an existing building,” she said. “In other cases, depending on the conditions, with some of the abatement issues that exist, it’s just more fiscally responsible to build a new building. The buildings were ranked, which ones to renovate and which ones to re-purpose.”
The process was open to the entire CPS community and beginning in the winter months of 2018, FNI held community meetings and focus groups, speaking with and presenting to groups of parents, students, teachers, administrators and community members at a series of meetings that took place all across the city.
“They talked to the various groups and asked for their input as to what they loved, what needed to be changed and they also looked at the demographics and population of the school as well as the footprints of the buildings,” Nota-Masse said. “For example, some of our schools like Waterman and Dutemple were built in the 1920s and were primarily walking schools. There is no place for parking for parents, no place for buses. For us to even try to renovate some of our buildings that are so old, and try to make them into 21st century learning spaces and have them meet security standards doesn’t make sense. Additionally, RIDE standards may not allow for certain buildings to be renovated, based on the building’s footprint.”
In addition to going through the buildings themselves, FNI analyzed spaces all over the city to determine where new buildings could go, if that route was chosen.
At the end of their assessment period, FNI presented the district’s executive team with volumes of information and recommendations.
“On November 14 we will be having a public meeting at 6:00 p.m. to roll out FNI’s compiled information to the district,” said Nota-Masse. “That meeting will be held at Cranston High School West and is open to everyone.”
According to Nota-Masse, the district is ready to go, if Question One were to get approved.
“If Question One gets approved, this positions us well to be ready to start the approval process with RIDE on all of these plans,” she said. “We are pretty confident that no one else in the state has done this type of preparatory work thus far, to be ready. We are hoping that along with the state bond money we will also have plans to ask for bonding from the city, which will be bigger asks. It costs approximately $30 to $50 million to redo an elementary school.”
Up to this point, the projects being done have had a quick turnaround time, as the window of opportunity for construction opens when school concludes at the start of summer vacation, and must close before the new year begins each fall.
“We usually have a very narrow window of time and a quick timeline for our projects,” she said. “Bigger projects will need different plans. We’d need swing space for where to put kids during the larger construction projects.”
The decision-making hasn’t been something the executive team is taking lightly.
“We want to be thoughtful in what we do,” she said. “This isn’t a Jeannine Nota-Masse project or a Ray Votto project. This will affect generations of kids and families in Cranston. We want this to last and to be good for kids.”
Additionally, it is the hope that the projects will provide for equity across the city, as many of the buildings on the eastern side of the city are the oldest, while some of the buildings on the western side are newer, but yet aren’t as well constructed as the older buildings and have consistent issues because of that fact.
“We want some equity in our facilities as well as to balance out what all kids have access to,” she said. “We are looking at safety, security and quality of life for all of our kids.”
Ultimately, the future lies in the voters’ hands when it comes to updating the Cranston Public Schools for a 21st century education and beyond.
“We are in support of Question One at the state level,” Superintendent Nota-Masse said. “We are also really looking for local support over the next year or two as well, as we ask for local bonding.”