WESTERLY —As it begins its work on the 2019-20 budget, the School Committee is studying the cost of programs offered at the Tower Street School Community Center and whether they align with the district's mission.
During a meeting on Thursday, committee members and administrators said that Tower Street's early childhood and before- and after-school programs benefit children and their families, but they also noted that the school district is spending about $700,000 per year on salaries, benefits and other costs that are not covered by fees, grants and rent payments made by private organizations that also use the building.
Parts of the building are rented by the Literacy Volunteers of Washington County and the Bradley School. The municipal Recreation Department also uses the building for office space and evening programs. The Education Exchange, a regional nonprofit agency, offers adult education courses at Tower Street. It's also a base for local operations for employees who provide a parenting program run by the state Department of Health.
Most of the local expenses are related to staff members who work in the before- and after-school programs. Annual building maintenance and operational costs are covered by rents and fees. Long-range maintenance costs also come from the town's general fund.
Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy praised the quality of the programs offered at the center but said school officials have been concerned about the costs for some time. "We can't eliminate them but we can't as Westerly Public Schools continue to fund them," she said.
"In 2016 we started to talk about how do we get the town to develop a social services agency. We have people relying on these programs, kids are reaping the benefits. We need to have a conversation with the Town Council and the town manager," Bowdy said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau offered a similar perspective. "There's a recognized need for these types of services and support to families in this town, but why is it falling on the Westerly public schools all the time?" he said.
Assistant Superintendent Alicia Storey said studies have shown that after-school programs help students stay away from risky behaviors and improve their social and emotional development. In addition, the community garden at the center is intended to promote overall wellness and help students learn about healthy eating, she said. "In my opinion that’s part of our supportive environment for our students, which is part of our mission," Storey said.
Committee member Mary Adams said some town residents believed that the center would not require the support of tax money once the building was taken off line as a school in 2009.
Committee members also said that the building is being eyed for use as a school on a temporary basis if the proposed elementary school redesign project is approved. Students would be moved there during construction. If the redesign is approved, committee member Christine Cooke said, the Tower Street building will be needed starting in September 2020. At that time, she said, "We're going to need the building. It's as simple as that. There will not be a place for those programs," Cooke said.
Joan Serra, director of community relations and building operations at Tower Street, said the programs offered at the center have been housed at other places over the years and could be relocated if necessary. She said she was aware that some in the community expected the building to be fully self-supporting, but those discussions predated the programs being moved into the building.
The child-focused programs are geared toward "children and families that are at risk for challenges that are going to make their children not successful when they come in to school," Serra said.
The committee asked Serra to provide a comparison of fees charged by other before- and after-school programs in the area.
The School Committee is required, under the Town Charter, to submit its proposed budget to town officials by the first Monday in February.