Building for the future

District's five-year plan seeks ambitious investment in school facilities

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On average, Cranston’s school buildings are more than 60 years old.

The longest-standing facility, the Briggs building – currently home of the district’s administrative offices, as well as some Cranston High School East classes and programming – turns 100 this year. The newest, Orchard Farms Elementary School, was built nearly 20 years ago. Most of the city’s schools were constructed between the 1920s and the 1960s.

The buildings have served generations of local children and families well, but their advancing age increasingly poses a challenge.

“Obviously, the buildings are in need of repair, and it’s costing a lot of money to do that,” Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse told the City Council’s Finance Committee on April 1. “Historically, what we have done is apply very expensive Band-Aids to our buildings … we haven’t had a true plan, a really intensive, well-thought-out plan on how we’re going to address the issues of the buildings to make them ready for 21st-century learning.”

“Everything is outdated, and to maintain it is becoming extremely difficult,” echoed Ed Collins, the district’s director of plant operations.

Nota-Masse and the district’s leadership team hope to change that through the latest five-year capital master plan for the school system, which received the recommendation of the Finance Committee and will go before the full City Council on April 22. The plan would then go to the Rhode Island Department of Education for approval.

“Every single building – and I’ve said this somewhat in jest, but it’s true – every single building that we have in the city needs to hit the Powerball,” the superintendent said. “And until that happens, we have a plan.”

About the process

The plan – which outlines $133.13 million in work at five schools, ranging from renovation to total reconstruction – is part of a regular process conducted every five years through RIDE, although the scope of what is being proposed this time around goes significantly beyond what has been sought in the past. It represents the first step in what officials hope will be a longer-term push to address all of the city’s school buildings.

Nota-Masse said the plan done in 2014 included health and safety improvements – largely in the form of sprinkler systems – across the city’s schools. That work was supported through a $15-million bond question city voters approved in the same year and “went very well,” the superintendent said.

Then, in 2017, a study commissioned by the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo and conducted by the firm Jacobs Engineering outlined the status and needs of Rhode Island’s school facilities. That study found that a total of roughly $2.2 billion would be needed to bring Rhode Island’s schools up to ideal condition – and nearly $630 million would be needed for high-priority work needed to ensure students and staff are “warm, safe and dry” in classrooms.

After the Jacobs study was released, Nota-Masse said, Cranston Public Schools employed educational planning and design firm Fielding Nair International, or FNI, along with construction firm E.W. Burman Inc., to more thoroughly identify and plan for the city’s school facility needs.

“We had our buildings looked at much more deeply,” she said, adding: “They really did an in-depth analysis of what our customers … our students and their families and the staff, what do they want from the schools?”

Raimondo’s administration, meanwhile, unveiled a major plan focused on updating the state’s school buildings. The first portion of that proposal, a $250-million bond question, went before voters in 2018. The measure, known as Question 1, passed overwhelmingly.

Five projects identified

The five-year plan that resulted from FNI’s work in Cranston, which was initially unveiled during a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee in November, seeks to address some of the most pressing facilities needs in the city’s school system – and to capitalize on the state funding that will be available to support the work.

The plan seeks approximately $24.92 million to modernize Eden Park Elementary School; roughly $39.69 million to modernize and expand Garden City Elementary School; just more than $52 million for the replacement of Gladstone Elementary School; approximately $8.5 million for renovations at Park View Middle School; and just less than $8 million for renovations at Cranston High School West.

Nota-Masse said the schools were chosen based on several factors.

“We tried to affect a school in every part of the city … We chose schools strategically so that every part of the city was getting some kind of upgrade,” she said.

A major consideration during the selection process was each building’s facility condition index, or FCI, score as determined by FNI. The score is designed to show the cost of repairing a building versus the cost of replacing it. For example, Gladstone’s FCI score of 77 percent – based on a repair cost of $26.5 million versus a replacement cost of $34.4 million – made it a candidate for replacement.

“We looked at all of that, and then we also looked at, quite frankly, making sure we impact as many students as possible,” Nota-Masse said. “So we could have chosen a couple of schools and done a lot of work, we could have chosen them on one particular side of the city or another, we could have chosen just middle schools or elementary … There are many things that we could have done. But this is the plan we decided on after months and months of discussion.”

Information provided by the district indicates that 3,647 of the school system’s 10,313 students would be affected by the work included in the five-year plan.

Working with RIDE

Nota-Masse said part of the impetus for moving forward with the chosen building projects is the availability of state reimbursement. Presently, the district’s reimbursement rate through the state for building projects is 52 percent, although various incentives – which include factors such as early childhood education programs, career and tech centers, innovative education, improving school utilization rates, school consolidation and safety and security improvements – could bring that rate up to 70 percent.

Based on that potential 70-30 split, state’s share of the work would be $93.2 million and the city’s would be $39.9 million.

“Depending on the project, there might be some variability of 5 to 10 percent, but generally we should have somewhere between 60 and 70 [percent], which is still an improvement on the reimbursement we’re getting now,” the superintendent said in response to a question from Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley.

The next steps, Nota-Masse said, involve approval for the plan from RIDE. She described the approval as an “arduous process,” and said that given the strong competition expected for state dollars, it is “even more important for us to be on the cutting edge of getting approval from [RIDE].”

“Every school district is going through this process … It’s important for us to get ahead of other people,” she said. “Two-hundred fifty million dollars from the state is a drop in the bucket in what our buildings need.”

Thus far, Nota-Masse said, the process with the state is going well.

“We’ve been at the table with [RIDE] for months on this work,” she said. “Quite frankly, they see us as a model for the state with all of the work we’ve done … with the students and the families and the staff all being involved, and they really like what we’re doing.”

Education Commissioner Dr. Ken Wagner, who is departing from his role this month after nearly four years, spoke highly of the Cranston Public Schools’ leadership and facilities planning during an interview last week.

“Jeanine is a very effective leader,” he said. “These are big decisions, so it does require big conversations, and to her credit, Jeanine has embraced that … You do have to engage people. That is a model, and we’re thrilled.”

Making the case

Nota-Masse noted that the Question 1 statewide bond question passed overwhelmingly in Cranston, and told City Council members that is a “a significant signal to all of you that the voters in Cranston want this work to be done.”

After RIDE approval, Nota-Masse said the next step will be bringing a local bond question proposal before city officials around this time next year, ahead of the 2020 election.

She acknowledged the scope of the financial commitment that is being proposed, but said plan’s focus on state reimbursement will lower costs for local taxpayers and allow the district to “get as much bang for our buck as we can.”

“I realize it has a huge price tag,” she said. “I am not naïve to think that this will sail through without some careful consideration. But what we have done over the years is ignore the problem. This is why we need millions of dollars worth of work.”

She added, “It we can get all of this work done for $40 million – and I know this sounds glib – it’s a bargain.”

A portion of the outline provided by FNI includes the long-term recommendation to repurpose both Chester W. Barrows Elementary School – which the School Committee has voted to close at the end of the current year, separately from the five-year plan – and Daniel D. Waterman Elementary School, which remains open and does not currently have a closure date.

Nota-Masse said the future of Waterman remains undecided, and largely dependent on whether the expansion of Garden City Elementary – which she said would likely be the first project pursued if the local bond question receives voter approval – allows for that facility to accommodate the needed number of additional students.

“Garden City is a great example of a place where we can expand the footprint of the building, improve it … and make that a bigger school. If that is accomplished, potentially we could close Waterman,” she said.

She added, “I can’t make that determination six years before that decision, or five years before that decision needs to be made. It really depends on population and us being thoughtful about what we’re doing. In the plan, it’s to expand Garden City … depending on what the population predictions are, once that first project is done, then we may have to look at Waterman. That was a recommendation. That doesn’t mean that that’s a definite. None of this in here is written in stone … I don’t want [council members] to think we’re not being transparent with families.”

Nota-Masse said the state has been a driver in districts like Cranston revisiting the decades-old neighborhood school model. She acknowledged the attachment many in the community have for schools like Barrows and Waterman, but said financial realities are a major factor in terms of planning and decision-making.

“In Cranston, like many districts, we have historically had the small, neighborhood schools … RIDE is telling us that they don’t want to provide funding for us to continue to maintain old, small, outdated buildings,” she said. “So that’s a very hard concept for families who really love their neighborhood school.”

She added, “For us to maintain those buildings, at some point the state is going to stop reimbursing us … It really behooves us to make larger, more community-based schools.”

Initial impressions

At the request of Council President Michael Farina, city Finance Director Robert Strom said he would prepare information regarding the potential costs associated with the district’s planned 2020 bond question in time for the council’s April 22 meeting. That will include information regarding the city’s other debt obligations.

Nota-Masse’s presentation drew positive feedback from several council members at the April 1 meeting.

“It’s a good plan,” Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas said. “We need to take action. I hope we get at the front of the line with RIDE.”

“It’s about time that we stop the Band-Aid approach and fix our schools for our kids. We deserve it,” Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins said. “If we’re going to be one of the top cities in the state of Rhode Island, then we need to set the trend … I am so excited to think that with your vision and your plan, that our schools are finally going to get the attention that they need.”

Citywide Councilman Steven Stycos raised some concerns that the scope of the plan – and the overall dollar figure involved – may hinder the city’s ability to address other capital needs in the years to come. He noted, and Strom confirmed, that the city has in recent years typically spent between $7 million and $12 million annually on debt service.

“If we do this five-year plan, and it’s $133 million, we don’t have a hell of a lot of money to spend on anything else but the school department for the five-year plan unless we increase the amount that we annually bond,” he said.

Nota-Masse again acknowledged the financial pressures at play – “As a taxpayer, I understand how the city leaders are looking at it,” she said – but framed the school buildings improvement push as vital to ensuring the city’s continued ability to serve students and families.

She said up until two years ago, desks in some Cranston elementary school classrooms still had inkwells. She also noted that the total facilities investment made in the city’s schools since the year 2000 amounts to $1.01 per square foot.

“That’s not acceptable for the students in our city,” she said. “That’s not acceptable to the families. It’s not acceptable for my student, my child, and it shouldn’t be for yours … I think it’s time for our students and our staff to have the facilities to match what our mission is – to make students ready for careers and post-secondary education that suits the 21st century, not the early 20th century.” 

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