WESTERN – The city’s five public schools have routine and preventive maintenance every day. As of April 2019, capital projects valued at approximately $ 2.9 million have been completed. This is part of the message school officials convey when trying to counter claims that schools have not properly serviced.
It’s a public relations effort that Schools Superintendent Mark Garceau called critical as the city council begins its deliberations on the proposed city and school budget for 2021-22. The tax office has recommended a modified level funding approach to the proposed school budget (about $ 200,000 more than current). If the city council accepts the recommendation, it would be the second year in a row that the use of local taxpayers’ money to support the education budget is funded either at or near the same level.
Some city council, finance committee and local residents advocate what Garceau calls “a false narrative”.
“They say, ‘They don’t maintain their buildings. Then why should we give them a nickel?’ Well, it’s just not true. That may be their perception, or if I were a cynical person I would say they are hiding behind it, but it’s just not true, so we need to address both their perception and the reality . We know well that we have to take care of our buildings … we get it and we spend the money, “said Garceau.
To further illustrate the volume of work, John Pagano, the school district director of buildings and facilities, provided a breakdown of projects and a departmental summary showing the department’s 2020 operating costs of $ 1.9 million and the Operating expenses of $ 2.5 million will result in the current fiscal year.
Some of the work completed or nearing completion in the past year includes repairing the track at Westerly High School’s Augeri Field and installing security vestibules at the town’s three elementary schools. In addition, Pagano’s department took care of the closure of the Tower Street School Community Center, is working with contractors to prepare new quarters for the district’s Transition Academy, and is responsible for the intensive cleaning and procurement of the equipment needed to to keep schools safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. A district-wide retrofitting of the LED lighting was also carried out.
Pagano works for Aramark Corporation, an international company that provides catering, facilities, and unified services to hospitals, universities, school districts, stadiums, and other businesses. He previously worked in retail, public housing and manufacturing. In a recent interview, he said he often draws on his manufacturing experience and approaches his responsibility for the district’s school buildings with a detailed, data-driven quality control approach that emphasizes frequent inspections and a scoring system.
The days of ceiling tiles stained with mold and mildew and lingering in schools for months are a thing of the past, Pagano said. “There will always be things like stained tile or a broken piece of playground equipment because of the amount of items and use, but because of my inspection process, they won’t linger. We are literally in every part of every school time,” he said.
Many of the inspections are carried out by Ian Gray, the district chief administrator. Everything is inspected, from heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems to gyms, grandstands and food service equipment.
“Ian was in every room, in every closet, in every boiler room and on every roof. The constant inspection results in less volume and fewer faulty components,” said Pagano.
In addition to inspections, school principals have access to a work order portal to report issues and things that need to be fixed. Pagano keeps track of all inspections, how often they take place and how long it takes to complete a full inspection cycle. Reports on inspections and other departmental activities are generated on a regular basis.
“I’m very transparent and want to know about problems,” said Pagano.
Garceau, who worked in four other public school districts before coming to Westerly in 2017, said he was trying to take full advantage of Pagano’s approach.
“He’s a man who is able to plan so carefully two years in advance and two days in advance. It’s rare to find a man who can do it all and who is mission-focused. So it is time to do so. ” Done that job, “said Garceau.
Aramark developed a 140-page guide to cleaning up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The manual was submitted to the State Department of Education as part of the district’s reopening plan. The instructions for deep cleansing are followed daily. As part of the protocol, Pagano ordered additional detergents. He took advantage of the district’s increased business with vendors and used 1,000 new hand sanitizer and soap dispenser stations, approximately 700 of which have already been installed, free of charge. He estimated the negotiations would have saved the district about $ 25,000.
Similarly, Pagano has offered several services to provide and renegotiate labor agreements with vendors. For example, the district elevator inspection agreement now provides for monthly inspections instead of annual inspections at the same cost.
Pagano and Garceau both realized that large ticket capital projects will always be required. Just as homeowners occasionally have to replace roofs, stoves, water heaters, and other items, the district will always have the same cost, they said.
“We have old buildings … that are clean and kept as good as possible. They are in as good shape as possible and we have systems and staff to make sure they are serviced. But roofs wear out just as much like tires and cars, “said Garceau.
School committee chair Diane Chiaradio Bowdy recently wrote to council members inviting them to tour the district’s schools. In her letter, she said the account of poorly maintained schools was problematic.
“We need to suppress this narrative, which is only meant to hurt us all every budget season, every time a redesign project is proposed, every time a bond question is asked, etc.,” wrote Chiaradio Bowdy.
During the Christmas break, Chiaradio Bowdy and other members of the school committee visited the school buildings.
“Five school committee members toured all of our buildings during the Christmas break. We were very impressed with the conditions of the buildings and the pride with which each administrator conducted our tour. Some of our buildings are old, but all of them are clean. It is obvious that our properties are well looked after, “said Chiaradio Bowdy in a recent interview.
In the past three years, says Chiaradio Bowdy, maintenance has been a high priority.
“Westerly Public Schools has come a long way in the last three years. Before that, the focus was not that strong. Maintenance is a very high priority for the school committee, administration and staff. We regularly bring this up in our meetings. About this.” in addition, RIDE will shortly require a maintenance allocation of 3% of the annual operating budget [and] WPS will easily fulfill this mandate well in advance of the required date, “she said.
The district has at times suffered from city council cuts to its annual capital funding requests, Chiaradio Bowdy said.
“I’ve been on the school committee for eight years. In those years we’ve been consistently underfunded relative to our capital requirements. If we don’t have the resources to carry out major routine maintenance projects, problems grow exponentially rather than go away.” , she said.
School committee member Christine Cooke said allegations of poor maintenance contributed to the defeat of the $ 71.4 million school construction project, which was believed to receive around 50% government reimbursement in 2019. The project would have resulted in a new school building on the site of the current State Street School and improvements to Dunn’s Corners and Springbrook Elementary Schools as called for in the city’s VISION 2020 plan. The project also included capital projects at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School.
“Unfortunately, the narrative, which continues to be immortalized by many members of the city council, has negatively affected the perspective of taxpayers and voters,” Cooke said. “Thanks to three years of hard work by the final Building Committee in 2019, Westerly was in the enviable position of having an approved project that was recognized by the Department of Education for its educational vision and that received half of its cost reimbursed from the project previously determined significant capital requirements of every building in our district covered. “