The Hummel Report: Reading, Writing and Repairs

For nearly a century the two-story brick school on Mineral Spring Avenue has educated thousands of students living in the eastern end of North Providence. Built in the 1920s, Marieville Elementary has served the community well. But take a closer look inside and you’ll see a building that has become a headache for maintenance crews and the administration.

hummel NP School wires copyOutdated electrical and heating systems and a deteriorating roof on a gymnasium added in 1960 just cost taxpayers $19,000 to repair. No one in town would argue that Marieville has become a money pit.

And it is not alone.

“I was somewhat shocked at what I saw out in the schools; they’ve been neglected for many years,’’ said Melinda Smith, who became the town’s school superintendent 2 and a half years ago. Years of deferred maintenance left Smith shaking her head as she toured the nine school buildings across town.

Marieville School is one of three elementary schools showing their age, along with Stephen Olney and Maguire. All are more than 80 years old.

The school department formed a 12-member school building committee two years ago and hired Torrado Architects to take a comprehensive look at all of the school buildings. In early 2014 it issued a 431-page report. Smith says the company came up with more than a dozen options, one costing upward of $120 million. That has since been pared down to $75 million and calls for replacing two elementary schools with brand new buildings and eventually knocking down Marieville Elementary. The figure also includes $16 million in pressing upgrades and repairs needed throughout the system.

“It does give you pause because of the enormity of the project,” Smith said. “And just the overall cost; if that happens and we’re able to put everything in place we’re going to have schools that are going to carry us well into the next 20 years with being really 21st century learning environments. So I’m pretty excited about it, but is it a hard sell? Of course it’s a hard sell.”

hummel NP Schools Autiello copyTown Council President Dino Autiello was a student at Stephen Olney elementary in the 1990s. He said no one disagrees that many of the schools need major work. But he also notes North Providence overcame a financial crisis over the past five years and is finally on solid footing, which is both good news and bad when it comes to selling residents on a massive spending project.

While North Providence grapples with a specific game plan, the state has made it a little easier for communities faced with similar school repair costs.

Last spring, the General Assembly lifted a moratorium on a state reimbursement program that brought new school construction statewide to a virtual halt. For North Providence it now means the state will reimburse the town for 56% of the cost to construct new,  or renovate existing, buildings.

At the same time, Governor Raimondo included $20 million in this year’s budget for shovel-ready repair projects for schools across the state, providing up to $1 million per project. Last month, North Providence submitted a dozen such projects to the Department of Education for consideration.

Taxpayers will likely be asked to decide in November 2016 whether to pass a bond for the school renovation and construction plan if the town council agrees to put the question on the ballot. But Autiello says one of the problems is the council has not seen a specific plan yet.

The superintendent says the department hired an educational consultant to help get community feedback and ultimately narrow down options for a bond question to present to the council and the public.

hummel NP Schools urinals copy“The worry is that as (the buildings ) age things start to blow up,” she said. “Just this year the hot water boiler at the high school went. The elevator broke at the high school. Those were unbudgeted expenses and I expect those unbudgeted expenses are going to start to occur more frequently.”

Lynn Fontaine heads a group that is advocating for the school repairs. “If we don’t do something now about the schools, it’s only going to get worse. And eventually we’re going to have to pay. And when is it, sooner or later? And if we don’t do something now while we’re in a financially good place, I think it would just be worse later on.”

So what if the bond issue doesn’t pass?

“We’ve talked about that,” Autiello said. “You have a lot of taxpayers in this town whose children are no longer in the school system. Do they vote for it? I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.”

The superintendent says taxpayers need to see in person the problems the district is facing. “What we haven’t done yet, and maybe what we should think about doing, is opening up those schools and letting the community see their condition.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your tax-deductible contributions. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to hummelreport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.org.

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