WESTERLY — Routine and preventative maintenance occurs in the town's five public schools on a daily basis and about $2.9 million worth of capital projects have been completed since April 2019. That's part of the message school officials are delivering as they try to counter claims the schools are not properly maintained.
It's a public relations effort that Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said is critical as the Town Council begins its deliberations on the proposed 2021-22 town and schools budget. The finance board has recommended a modified-level funding approach (about $200,000 more than current) to the proposed schools budget. If the Town Council accepts the recommendation, it would be the second year in a row that the appropriation of local tax dollars to support the education budget was either level funded or nearly level funded.
Some members of the Town Council, the finance board and residents espouse what Garceau calls "a false narrative."
"They say, 'They don't maintain their buildings so why should we give them a nickel?' Well, it's simply not true. That may be their perception, or if I was a cynical person I'd say they are hiding behind it, but it's just not true. So we have to address both their perception and the reality. We know full well that we have to take care of our buildings ... we get it and we are spending the money," Garceau said.
To further illustrate the volume of work that occurs, John Pagano, the school district's director of buildings and facilities, provided a breakdown of projects and a department summary showing $1.9 million in department operating expenses for fiscal year 2020 and projections for $2.5 million in operating expenses in the current fiscal year.
Some of the work either completed or nearing completion that was carried out within the past year includes refinishing the track at Westerly High School's Augeri Field and the installation of security vestibules at the town's three elementary schools. Additionally, Pagano's department handled the closing of Tower Street School Community Center, is working with contractors to prepare new quarters for the district's Transition Academy and is responsible for the intense cleanings and procuring the equipment required to make the schools safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. A districtwide LED lighting retrofit was also undertaken.
Pagano works for Aramark Corporation, an international company that provides food service, facilities and uniform services to hospitals, universities, school districts, stadiums and other businesses. He previously worked in retail, public housing and manufacturing. During a recent interview, he said he taps his manufacturing experience often and approaches his responsibilities for the district's school buildings with a detail-, data-driven, quality-control approach that emphasizes frequent inspections and a grading system.
The days of ceiling tiles stained with mold and mildew remaining in place in schools for months at a time are in the past, Pagano said. "There will always be things like stained tiles or a broken piece of playground equipment because of the volume of items and use, but because of my process of inspections they won't linger. We're literally in every part of every school all the time," he said.
Many of the inspections are carried out by Ian Gray, the district's lead custodian. Everything is inspected, from heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, to gymnasiums, bleachers and food service equipment.
"Ian has been in every room, every closet, every boiler room and on every roof. The constant inspection is leading to less volume and fewer failed components," Pagano said.
In addition to the inspections, school principals have access to a work-order portal to report problems and things that need to be fixed. Pagano tracks all of the inspections, how often they occur and the length of time it takes to complete a full circuit of inspections. Reports on the inspections and other department activities are generated regularly.
"I'm very transparent and want to know about problems," Pagano said.
Garceau, who worked in four other public school districts before coming to Westerly in 2017, said he's trying to take full advantage of Pagano's approach.
"He's a guy who is able to plan so carefully for two years ahead and two days ahead at the same time. It's rare to find a guy who is that on top of it and that mission-driven, so this is the time to get this work done," Garceau said.
Aramark developed a 140-page manual for cleaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The manual was submitted to the state Department of Education as part of the district's reopening plan. The directions for deep cleaning are being followed daily. As part of the protocol, Pagano ordered additional cleaning materials. He used the district's increased business with vendors and leveraged 1,000 new hand sanitizers and soap dispenser stations, about 700 of which have already been installed, for free. He estimated the negotiation saved the district about $25,000.
Similarly, Pagano has put several services out to bid and renegotiated work agreements with vendors. For instance, the district's agreement for elevator inspections now calls for monthly inspections rather than annual ones for the same cost.
Pagano and Garceau both noted that there will always be a need for big ticket capital projects. Just like homeowners must occasionally replace roofs, furnaces, hot water heaters and other items, the district will always have the same expenses, they said.
"We've got old buildings … that are clean and that are as well maintained as they can be. They are in as good a shape as they possibly can be, and we have systems and people in place to make sure they are maintained. But roofs wear out just like tires wear out and cars wear out," Garceau said.
School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy recently wrote to members of the Town Council and invited them to tour the district's schools. In her letter she said the narrative of poorly maintained schools is problematic.
"We need to quell this narrative, which only serves to hurt all of us every budget season, every time a redesign project is proposed, every time a bond question is issued, etc.," Chiaradio Bowdy wrote.
During the Christmas recess, Chiaradio Bowdy and other School Committee members visited the school buildings.
"Five members of the School Committee toured all of our buildings over the Christmas break; we were very impressed by the conditions of the buildings and the pride with which each custodian conducted our tour. Some of our buildings are old, but they are all clean and well maintained. It's obvious that our properties are cared for," Chiaradio Bowdy said during a recent interview.
During the last three years, Chiaradio Bowdy said, maintenance has become a high priority.
"Westerly Public Schools has come a long way in the last three years. Prior to that, the emphasis wasn't as strong. Maintenance is a very high priority for the School Committee, administration and staff. We regularly address this topic in our meetings. In addition, RIDE will soon require a maintenance allocation of 3% of the yearly operating budget [and] WPS will easily meet this mandate well before the required date," she said.
The district has suffered, at times, Chiaradio Bowdy said, from reductions made by the Town Council to its annual capital funding requests.
"I've been a School Committee member for eight years. In those years, we have been consistently underfunded relative to our capital requests. If we aren't provided with the resources needed to perform major routine maintenance projects, problems increase exponentially rather than disappear," she said.
School Committee member Christine Cooke said claims of poor maintenance contributed to the defeat of the $71.4 million school building project that was believed to qualify for about 50% reimbursement from the state in 2019. The project would have resulted in a new school building at the site of the current State Street School and improvements to Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools as called for in the town's VISION 2020 plan. The project also included capital projects at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School.
"Unfortunately, the narrative that continues to be perpetuated by many members of the Town Council has negatively influenced the perspective of taxpayers and voters," Cooke said. "Thanks to the three years of hard work by the last Building Committee, in 2019, Westerly was in the enviable position of having an approved project, commended for its educational vision by the department of education, which was eligible to receive half of its cost reimbursed by the state. The project would have addressed the previously identified significant capital needs of every building in our district."