And ... we’re back!
While we certainly had hoped that schools everywhere would be opening this fall with COVID-19 existing only as a memory and without any restrictions or mandates in place, we just are not quite there yet. That said, we were thrilled to fully open our schools on the 7th of September, and we are looking forward to another successful and productive year for all of Bulldog Nation.
Shutting down face-to-face instruction in March of 2020 and then committing so much energy to doing all we could to stay as fully open as possible throughout school year ’20-’21 may have allowed, or even forced, us to divert our attention away from the ever-present need to address our school facilities. That need has not gone away.
Our Building and Maintenance crews have done a great deal of outstanding work over the past few years installing secure building entrances, laying new flooring in multiple locations, repairing or replacing roofs, addressing air quality issues (the HVAC system at Westerly Middle School has literally never worked so well), upgrading electrical and mechanical systems and going through gallons and gallons of paint. A great many projects, large and small, have contributed to our being able to open this fall in buildings that may be old, but that are bright and clean, dry, healthy and safe. But, as has been discussed locally for a number of years, some of those same buildings are old, tired, and are at or near the end of their useful life. Others are in need of further investment.
When considering our facilities, we need to examine the extent to which our available spaces are being effectively and efficiently used to maximum effect in support of improved outcomes and opportunities for all students. Questions such as, “How do our grade and building configurations support kids if they allow us to (or prohibit us from) consolidate our instructional resources and staff where they are needed most?”, “How might reconfiguring them allow for more student choice options in terms of course selections?” and “What might the implications be for strengthening our academic and Career and Technical program offerings?” In essence, “How can we make the best use of the spaces available to us to support equitable access to high quality learning experiences and the supports needed to ensure that every kid gets what every kid needs to be successful?” These, and more, are the same questions that all building subcommittees, past and present, have worked to explore, gather input on, and use to frame various proposals in recent years.
Unfortunately, two very different proposals for addressing our ever-present facilities needs have both failed (in both 2016 and 2019) to garner support at the ballot box. If the third time really is the charm, this community will, over the coming weeks and months and following a transparent process, come to agreement on a facilities plan that aligns with the district’s educational vison, is viewed as worthy of financial support by the taxpayers of Westerly, and which signals to our residents (current and future) that Westerly values and is willing to invest in its public schools.
Some may recall that the Westerly Public Schools Building Subcommittee was scheduled to hold the first of a number of workshops to discuss citizen-submitted proposals for addressing our building needs on the morning of Saturday, March 14, 2020. That date turned out the be the last day of the week when COVID shut us all down. Schools closed for the remainder the year on Friday afternoon the day before. Friday the 13th, go figure.
Under the steady and capable leadership of resident, parent and architect Justin Hopkins, the Building Subcommittee has continued to vet those submitted proposals, has hired a highly experienced and well-regarded owners project manager (OPM) in Mr. Joseph DiSanti of Downes Construction, and has most recently received unanimous support from both the School Committee and the Town Council for the submission of a Stage 1 application to the Rhode Island Department of Education. A Stage 1 application commits no one to anything, but it does communicate to RIDE that we have a need, that we have some ideas, and that we want to engage with the state to flesh those ideas out; that we want to begin the process.
For anyone with an interest in this community’s schools and the town’s future, this is a time to be paying close attention to this process and to be sharing your thoughts and perspectives. In order to be successful, we will need a plan (more thoroughly developed at what RIDE calls Stage 2) that, even if not everyone loves all aspects of it, we can come to consensus around and get behind.
We hope that all members of the community will take the time to follow the work of the Building Subcommittee, will listen for what is being said (and what is not), will actively contribute to the discussions by attending meetings, calling in to meetings via Zoom or writing to the committee and participating in its upcoming engagement sessions. These engagement sessions will answer all questions about how we have gotten “here,” how proposal submissions were sought, the components and criteria by which they have been considered thus far, the educational and fiscal implications of each and more. The sessions will also provide additional opportunities for input, discussion and consideration by all interested parties.
As a rule, the Building Subcommittee meets every other Wednesday on weeks opposite the School Committee’s Wednesday meetings; generally, the first and third Wednesdays of the month. They are typically streamed live on either Clerkbase or the district Facebook page or both. Community members are also welcomed to attend in person.
The first two community engagement sessions are scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 30 (Zoom online) beginning at 6 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 2, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in person in the WMS Cafeteria. We hope that providing for both virtual and in-person participation will make it as easy as possible for all those interested to engage with us in this important work. Please consider joining either session or both.
Here’s to a great School Year ’21-’22, and to accomplishing the needed facilities work that has been put off for too long.
Mark Garceau is the superintendent of schools in Westerly.