Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles about the Westerly school building project that will be on the ballot in October.
WESTERLY— While the proposed school building project calls for work at all of Westerly's schools, it is focused mainly on the elementary schools and premised on a reconfiguration of grades intended to improve teaching, learning and equity of access.
If approved by voters in the Oct. 10 referendum, the project would result in a new State Street School building for all of the town's Grade 3 - Grade 5 students. Pre-K programming, which is now housed at Westerly High School's Babcock Hall, would be spread out between the Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools, both of which would also serve Grades K-2. Moving fifth grade students out of Westerly Middle School will allow teachers there to make better use of the building's design elements such as open space for collaborative learning, officials say.
The reconfiguration grew out of forums, meetings, and focus groups. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said he was initially unsure about the idea but soon came to embrace it.
"One of the things that has been difficult to hear is the criticism that this was somehow a done deal. It could not be further from the truth. This came about so organically," he said.
The two pre-K-Grade 2 schools would focus on developing students' literacy and numeracy skills in preparation for entering the State Street School and the start of standardized testing in the third grade. The new configuration will also allow for more efficient use of staffing resources, Garceau said. "We're very enthusiastic that it's going to have a positive impact on teaching and learning," he said.
Some critics have speculated that the new configuration would require more teachers and staff members, and Garceau said he has also heard grumbling that the opposite would occur — that he plans to eliminate positions if the project is approved. "I don't see how it would lead to an immediate reduction in teachers. It's the same number of kids," Garceau said.
Similary, Garceau said he did not anticipate adding staff but does plan to move an assistant principal at Westerly Middle School to the new State Street School and fill a dean of teaching and learning position that is currently unfilled, under an agreement with the teachers' union, at the middle school.
Critics have also pointed to the additional transition that students would make from one school building to another. While acknowledging the concern, Garceau said the district would work to ease the stress by trying to welcome children to their new buildings. "Yes, transitions can be difficult but there's a lot of thought on how to mitigate that," he said.
The issue of school start times has also entered the conversation. If the project is approved, Garceau said he would view it as an opportunity for the community to consider start times. He noted that the question of when the school day should start, especially at the high school level, is a frequent discussion point. In fact, a student raised the issue to the School Committee earlier this month. "We have time to figure these things out," he said.
On a recent afternoon officials walked the hallways and grounds of State Street Elementary School. Brick pilasters that hold up the building's trusses are failing. John Pagano, the district's director of facilities, said water intrusion through roof seams in areas where the school was remodeled over the years is a chronic problem.
While the heating system is better now than in recent years, contractors are often working on it, said Audrey Faubert, the school's principal. She also attested to another frequently heard complaint.
"The odor has been here a long time...we don't know what it is," Faubert said of a smell that is nearly always noticeable in the school.
The school also lacks a security vestibule. Visitors can gain access to the entire school after passing through an initial set of front doors. The plans call for constructing security vestibules at all three elementary schools. Westerly Middle School already has one. While the project calls for security upgrades at Westerly High School, the facility does not have a security vestibule.
The material used to hold older floor tiles in place at the State Street school gets "slimy" during wet times of the year. "When the groundwater is high you get seepage of water up through the concrete and goo between the tiles gets slimy ... something oozes up," said Gina Fuller, co-chairwoman of the School Committee's Building Subcommittee.
Because the school has been remodeled so often from its original layout of several smaller buildings, it is not a candidate for large scale renovations, said Tracey Donelly, an architect with RGB Architects of Providence. The firm has been working on the project with the Building Subcommittee for about two years.
"There's a lot of issues with water infiltration and indoor air quality and that’s why this school doesn't have have a good base to do an addition or renovation," Donnelly said.
Other aspects of the building, which was constructed in 1955, also show its age. Kindergarten classrooms are smaller than the current standards set by the state Department of Education. Student bathrooms are located outside of classrooms and do not have sinks. In some cases Faubert and teachers have reconfigured classroom space to incorporate the larger group learning environment the building project envisions at the new State Street School and the district's two other elementary schools.
The flooring of the school's cafeteria and gymnasium are old vinyl asbestos tile that would require abatement if removed. The tiles do not present a health hazard as long as they remain intact, officials said.
State Street teachers also have to be mindful of their use of electricity so as not to interfere with other teachers.
"When we started using more technology in instruction and everyone had a smart board, an interactive board and speakers and sound, if you had two teachers using them at the same time we would blow fuses," Faubert said.
Fuller said the building project will address power needs at all of the district's schools, including making sure that classrooms have enough outlets to allow students to fully use computers and other technology.
The plans for the State Street School also call for more group learning and maker spaces as well as a new emphasis on natural light.
The new building is estimated to cost $37.29 million. The ballot question for the Oct. 10 referendum will ask voters to decide on the issuance of up to $71.4 million in bonds to cover part of the cost of a $75.2 million project. Renovations and additions would also be done at the Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools, along with improvements to Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School.
The state has pledged to reimburse at least 35% and up to 50% of eligible parts of the project, including interest, which is estimated to be $42 million. State reimbursement aid at 35% is expected to be about $29.57 million; at 50% it would rise to $45.89 million.