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Baxter Letters: Warwick Vets $845K Fix Spurs Dispute

[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Administration is located at 69 Draper Ave.

[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Administration is located at 69 Draper Ave.
[CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools Administration is located at 69 Draper Ave.
WARWICK, RI — If Superintendent Lynn Dambruch’s July 12 letter suspending Warwick Public Schools Finance Director Robert Baxter and his lawyer’s July 19 reply had been released during the July 20 School Committee meeting, their disagreement over an $845,000 Wawick Vets fix would’ve been apparent.

Instead the repairs necessary to fix “material health and safety deficiencies” Baxter said were brought to his attention by Assistant Superintendent William McCaffery were mentioned in passing as item 31 of 34 under “New Business,” long after the Committee voted to hire an audit firm to investigate Baxter’s department.

As the Warwick School Committee discussed the proposed $845K Warwick Veterans repair project under item 31, “Veterans Middle Unified Arts Instruction Space Refurbishment,”  School Committee member David Testa shared reservations about the cost. 

“What this looks like to me is a massive expenditure, about $845,000 to redo the Unified Arts refurbishment area of Vets,” he said. Testa said he wouldn’t approve it because it wasn’t included in the original FY22 budget and that the expense was too costly for something done outside that process. He said he also took issue with the project being characterized as critically necessary.

“I’m going to have to say I can’t approve this,” Cobden said, “I do agree that that project, at some point, is necessary, but I don’t think it’s been done properly.”

“I was horrified when I saw it,” said member Karen Bachus, “I don’t know what sort of fantasy someone was having in creating such a thing that isn’t funded.”

The Committee moved a motion to approve the proposal, which they unanimously voted against

Committee, Superintendent, decline to clarify 

The investigation vote coincided with the approval of a search for an interim administrator to fill a vacant position that no School Committee member or official explained during the meeting, nor after the meeting when asked.

Requests to  Warwick School Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and Warwick School Committee members to explain the interim administrator search yielded either no response, claims of ignorance or invocation of the personnel records exemption to RI’s public records law. School Committee Chairwoman Judy Cobden did not return a call asking for comment about the new administrator. Member David Testa replied to say he wouldn’t comment on “personnel matters” and member Karen Bachus said she had not been informed about what the new administrator, whom she had voted to hire, would be doing.

The job posting later that week revealed it’s likely intended to fill in for Special Education Director Jennifer Connolly, who resigned to take a new job.

Public documents connect proposal, suspension, investigation

At about the same time the enigmatic reluctance to explain the interim position was rendered moot, copies of both Dambruch’s letter and Baxter’s lawyer’s response surfaced, showing an apparent conflict between Baxter and Dambruch over the need to address the repairs. Each document is attached below, in chronological order:

Dambruch-Baxter-suspension.lettter-July-12-2021

Dambruch-Baxter-suspension.lawyer-response-July-19-2021.

Dambruch: Project exceeded scope, communication lacking

Dambruch’s letter references concerns raised July 9 and July 12 about the Warwick Veterans Middle School refurbishment project, which, “has expanded far beyond the initial focus of paint and floor tiles as stated publicly at School Committee meetings.” Dambruch also raises, but does not specify, concerns about the bid process, and alleges, “in some instances work has been performed without our approval and prior to School Committee approval in the G wing of the Unified Arts project.”

The letter also references prior conversations with Baxter about the need to include Dambruch and Assistant Superintendent William Mccaffery in “any and all decisions.”

“Unfortunately, those prior conversations have not resulted in transparent communication between us,” Dambruch wrote.

Sinapi/Baxter:  Officials were in the loop, sought out for direction

The letter from Baxter’s lawyer, Richard Sinapi, of Sinapi Law Associates in Warwick, argues Baxter has kept both the administration and School Committee Chairwoman Judy Cobden in the loop, including giving tours of the area, and that he had only sought to propose additional work outside the scope of the project at the direction of McCaffrey:

“The intent of the Space Refurbishment Project is and always was to use existing resources, supplies budget, and/or labor to renovate Warwick Veterans, to not only bring it in compliance with minimum health and safety standards, but to attract enrollment at the school. Separate and apart, upon being made aware of the conditions in G-Wing by Asst. Superintendent McCaffrey (on March 5, 2021), and the immediate health and safety concerns clearly present, my client began to undertake the preparation of a separate project proposal, with your awareness. If there was a desire to cease the any of the proposed G-Wing projects, express direction could have been given. Further, my client explicitly asked for such feedback from both yourself and School Committee Chair Cobden at the conclusion of the tour my client provided to both of you in early July. To the contrary, you both indicated a recognition of the need for the G-Wing Demolition and Refit projects and a desire to move forward. The foregoing has been publicly disclosed to the School Committee and documentation in support of this has previously been forwarded to the office of the Superintendent. In fact, as mentioned above, you and the Chair of the School Committee recently did a walk-through of G-Wing with my client where this was further explained to you. Prior to this, on two occasions over the past 6 months, my client did a walk-through of Warwick Veterans with Mr. William McCaffrey. On the first of these occasions (March 5, 2021), Mr. McCaffrey introduced my client to the needs of the building outside the scope of the project currently underway at that time, including the male and female locker rooms and the G-Wing, and inquired if these needs could be addressed. On the second occasion, Mr. McCaffrey was apprised of the proposed plan to address the G-Wing health and safety issues. Accordingly, the necessity and general scope of the renovations my client intended to propose was well known by you and others in the School Department.”

NOW, CHECK OUT THIS:
Warwick School Committee: Baxter Case, School Repairs

Baxter suspended before repair presentation 

Responding to Dambruch’s concern about the bid process, Sinapi argues Baxter had been planning to make a presentation to the School Committee about his proposal at the July 14 meeting . Baxter was suspended the day before that.

“To my client’s knowledge, all projects taking place at Warwick Veterans have been bid in accordance with applicable law. Specifically, the contractor proposed to be recommended for the G-Wing Demolition and Refit projects was identified and recommended by Kevin Oliver, Facilities Director, and selected from the state MPA (#397) as an emergency source selection to address an immediate health and safety need. Consideration of my client’s proposed recommendation relative to these projects was to be scheduled to be before the School Committee on July 13, 2021 (Editor’s note: The meeting was actually scheduled and held on July 14). If there were any concerns they could have been raised at that time. If any unresolved issue or question about the process remained, the projects could have easily been re-sourced.

Prior to my client’s suspension, as part of the due diligence regarding the Space Refurbishment Project, he was apprised of numerous deficiencies in G-Wing in violation of minimum health and safety standards. The first source was complaints introduced to him by Asst. Superintendent William McCaffrey and then directly from educators in the building. The second source was a detailed report prepared by a fire inspector who inspected the building. Another was a safety engineer who was engaged to perform a health and safety inspection. The deficiencies identified included falling fiberglass particles from the ceiling throughout the building, poor air quality due to excessive dust as a consequence of non-functioning dust collectors in the woodshop area, trip hazards due to holes in the floor and protruding electrical outlets, a deficient and unsafe electrical service, unsecured access in the event of an “active shooter hazard,” and non-compliance with certain ADA requirements. These significant deficiencies were the primary basis of the scope and cost of G-Wing Demolition and Refit projects my client proposed to recommend. My client had secured an approval to proceed and commitment from RIDE to reimburse between 35% and 42% of the Demolition project. My client fully expected that the second project, the Refit, would have met RIDE guidelines and also qualify for the same reimbursement program. If there was any concern about RIDE funding, these projects could have been approved subject to such funding or placed in abeyance subject to confirmation of RIDE funding. Ultimately, the allocation of resources is a political/policy decision for the School Committee to make. My client’s job in that regard is merely to utilize his background, skills, and experience to gather the requisite information and make a recommendation. However, it appears in this instance that in order to deflect attention from the “inconvenient truth” of the existence of material health and safety deficiencies that need remediation at a larger scope and cost than anticipated, my client has become the target of trivial and/or baseless allegations that have nothing to do with the priority, merits, or necessity of the proposed renovations.”

When reached at his office to comment on the letters, Sinapi declined to discuss it or answer questions.

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of WarwickPost.com. Contact him at editor@warwickpost.com with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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