WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council can’t dictate how the School Department spends the $4 million bond they’re asking for, but can ask where it’ll be spent before they approve it, which is what they did for more than three hours Monday night before continuing the review until March 20.
Several City Councilors expressed skepticism about the decisions inherent in some of the spending requests, questioning whether the money could be better spent.
In the case of $500,000 requested to clear trees and blast shale to create three new playing fields out of the single field at Toll Gate High School, “I am very skeptical that this is a need in the city that is so pressing,” said Councilman Richard Corley, that new fields were required to be created at the school this summer.
Also, said Corley, that money may wind up being required for other contingencies, such as perhaps addressing air quality issues at Warwick Veterans Memorial Junior High. He referenced air quality tests recently finished at the school that could require the Warwick School Department to spend money on an as-yet unrealized problem at the school.
Director of Buildings and Grounds Steven Gothberg told the Council that the tests were just completed this week, but had not yet been evaluated.
Councilman Edgar Ladouceur criticized the spending of $375,000 on addressing building code issues at Gorton High School, noting recently closed elementary schools had been shuttered due in part to the cost associated with brining them up to code.
“What sense does that make,” he asked.
Councilman Jeremy Rix questioned whether the building was legally required to update building codes due to a change of use. Gothberg countered that the building inspector and fire marshal had confirmed the need, but Rix was insistent that it was their interpretation of the law, creating a burden which a professional legal opinion might relieve them of.
“I would suggest that it would be helpful if there were a legal opinion as to a matter of law,” Rix said.
Councilman Timothy Howe noted the long hours spent on the bond request had much to do with the lack of communication between the Council and Committee, and many of the council members seeing the numbers for the first time.
“We do need to have better communication,” Howe said.
Councilman Stephen Merolla noted the two bodies used to work out such details in subcommittees in advance, as they did in 2006 when he sponsored a school bond.
“I don’t know if it was something in the water back then, but we talked,” Merolla said.
School Committee member David Testa defended the School Committee’s spending choices, particularly an expenditure last year on new auditorium at Pilgrim High School, where the curtains were held together with fishing line and parts of the stage were unsafe for walking.
“It’s a judgement call,” Testa said. He noted a number of the schools’ issues, and related expenses, were accumulated over years of neglect that the department is addressing as best it can.
As the review of the items stretched a half hour toward a fourth hour at 11:30, Councilman Merolla made a motion to postpone the issue till the next meeting. The motion was approved, the bond was added to the March 20th agenda, and the Council convened for the night.