WESTERLY — It was a back-to-school day of sorts Thursday for a few members of the Town Council who toured each of the district's buildings.
Council President Sharon Ahern and Councilor Suzanne Giorno walked the hallways guided by Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and members of his staff. Councilor Karen Cioffi joined via Zoom.
Ahern, who proposed the tour, said she wanted to give herself and the other members of the council an opportunity to see the schools firsthand as the council prepares to review a school building project that is being planned by the School Committee and its Building Subcommittee. She also noted the frequent discussion of whether the schools are properly maintained.
"I am very grateful to Dr. Garceau for taking the time out to give us the tour, and I was very impressed. Certainly seeing it helps you understand what the proposals are that are going to be coming before us ... also the maintenance was surprisingly excellent," Ahern said at the end of the 2½-hour walk through each school.
The tour started at Springbrook Elementary School. John Pagano, the district's facilities director, described the building as being in "good shape." Built in 1995, the building will need a new roof in about two years, and the parking lot and driveway are in need of repairs, which Pagano said should be done soon before further deterioration drives the cost of repairs significantly higher. While the school building has received a variance from the state building code, it does not meet current safety codes because only part of the building has a fire-protection sprinkler system installed, Pagano said.
Garceau pointed to the need for a new roof and moving the student lunch room out of its current below-ground location as major concerns at Dunn's Corners Elementary School.
"It does feel like it's down in the basement and has limited egress," Garceau said.
A portion of the $2 million bond approved by voters on May 11 will pay for the roof work. Asbestos floor tiles should also be addressed and are also in need of replacement in parts of State Street Elementary School as well, officials said.
Westerly Middle School, which was built in 2005, is set up with nine pods for various groupings of students.
"It's an ideal layout for a middle school," Garceau said.
Aspects of the heating and ventilation system were not completed due to cost considerations when the school was built, Pagano said.
"But as a whole it works well and has it own self-contained system," Pagano said.
Built in 1955, State Street Elementary School is the district's most difficult building to keep warm in the winter months and cool in the early fall and spring, Garceau said. The school has also had plumbing problems. While there is an ever-present odor in the building, Garceau said the school consistently passes air quality tests. Chief of Police Shawn Lacey, who also took the tour, said the same smell was present when he attended the school.
At Westerly High School's Babcock Hall, Pagano said, additional work is planned to improve ventilation and air circulation. Garceau highlighted the building's cosmetology program and pre-school areas as well as a grouping of second-floor art classrooms.
Following the tour, Garceau said he had hoped additional members of the council could have attended, but thanked Ahern and Giorno for participating. He said he hoped to accomplish two goals with the tour: provide a glimpse of the conditions of the schools and give councilors a visual understanding of how the grade reconfiguration and renovations contemplated by the building project proposals might work.
"As we try to help the council understand and appreciate and hopefully recognize, the district has been very much committed to taking care of the maintenance that may have been neglected in the past. So I wanted the council to see," Garceau said.
School officials are also hoping the council will back a building project once a final concept is arrived at and presented to residents.
"We're going to need their buy-in, so by seeing the schools it makes it that much more real for them," Garceau said.
The Building Subcommittee has recommended two potential options, after reviewing more than a dozen plans, to the School Committee, but officials have stressed they are eager to hear from residents who may have other ideas. Some of the plans reviewed by the subcommittee were submitted by residents. One of the recommended options would include renovations or additions to Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools for K-3, students in grades 4-7 would attend Westerly Middle School, and grade 8 would move to Westerly High School. Upgrades to district athletic facilities as outlined in the municipal Recreation Master Plan would also be accomplished.
The other recommended option calls for demolishing a portion of State Street Elementary School and retaining part of the school for pre-K and district administrative offices, which are currently in Babcock Hall. The plan also calls for expanded use of the State Street School gymnasium by the community and establishment of community gardens there.
The plan also calls for renovations of Springbrook and Dunn's Corners elementary schools to accommodate grades K-3, and renovations to Westerly Middle School for grades 4-7. The plan also calls for moving grade 8 to Babcock Hall in a partitioned area. Augeri Field and the track, both at Westerly High School, would be improved.