As a new school year begins, it is an excellent time to take stock of where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. The past year has featured so much disruption, chaos, transition, and change that it is difficult to remember where we were just one year ago. In no instance is the contrast more evident than in school facility planning. With respect to the RIDE application process, we today find ourselves exactly where we were in September 2018, preparing to complete and submit a stage 2 application in February, and planning parking lot and security upgrades for the following summer. But this is not Groundhog Day. Today looks nothing like yesterday and events of the past year are hard to believe.
In September of 2018 the district had just submitted its Stage 1 application, and incorporated input gathered at several community forums into educational specifications and preliminary architectural plans for our future facilities. By all accounts the process was moving along well, with representatives from RIDE even citing SK as a model for school facility planning. in fact, RIDE’s instructions for submitting facility maintenance expenses uses SK schools as an example.
Plans were laid out, transparent, and available for public consumption and comment. Community input was incorporated into the plan to make it flexible, and a contingency committee was established to monitor demographic trends and make recommendations for alterations to the plan over time.
Most importantly, the planning process leaned heavily on the community for input, as community members involved in the process articulated. We gave up our time to watch our kids at sports and music classes, we stepped away from our families and jobs to provide feedback and the community was represented with teachers, administrators, parents, students, retirees, local business owners, and elected officials. We talked, we shared, we asked questions, we came to some really tough conclusions that no one wanted to have to decide, but that the majority agreed was what was needed to keep our high standards of education and opportunities for all of our learners pk-12, as the center focus. We prioritized our learners over our buildings. And we all lost a lot of sleep over it all.
It is unfortunate for the community that the Ed Spec meetings in July 2018 were the last time they were formally included in the facility planning process. Since then, the facility plan has been plagued by last minute changes, delays, and outright rejections, all unfolding for the most part behind closed doors. Even the most involved community member would at this point be hard pressed to articulate the basics of the facility plan as currently configured.
Despite repeated warnings that changing the facility plan late in the process was risky, on Nov. 27, 2018 at their first meeting, the newly-elected school committee voted in a clearly confused manner to redirect the facility plan to Option A. The repercussions of that alteration have been as severe as they were predictable.
The addition of Wakefield Elementary School (WES) to the facility plan caused changes in the plans for West Kingstown Elementary School (WKES) and Matunuck Elementary School (MES), where planned additions were scrapped. The loss of those additions had a domino effect. Removing the planned new gymnasium space meant the old gymnasium could no longer be turned into a new media center. Without the new media center, the old media center could no longer be renovated as a maker space as originally planned.
Again without any public input, the School Committee revised the facility plan, removing all renovations but basic repairs and a small line item to combine two classrooms into larger spaces at each elementary school to free up additional money for high school alterations. While this may have been a reasonable decision, it is one which would have surely benefited from additional public review.
Subsequently, a questionable demographic update caused the architects to effectively scrap even the additional large spaces in the elementary schools. At this point, the public had lost all conception of what the facility plan looked like. What had become of 18 months of work? No one knew, and it was too late to really find out as we were pressing against the Feb. 15 deadline.
Finally, the lack of transparency came to a head just one week before the stage 2 application deadline, when all three relevant bodies voted to give RGB the authority to submit our stage 2 application before any of our elected representatives had a chance to even review the application materials. Yes, you read that right. All three bodies, the building committee, the school committee, and town council approved an application they had not seen.
It came as little surprise to anyone seriously following these events that within two weeks RIDE refused to accept the application and pushed us to a later deadline to give the district time to fix a seriously flawed application. RIDE’s response was detailed, delineating error after error and missing piece after missing piece in the application. The School Committee and RGB have since downplayed this failure, at various points placing blame on the community, RIDE and each other.
Over the next several months, the district continued to stumble, at one point investigating the possibility of another drastic change in the plan, building a new high school, again with no public input. Finally, over the summer, planned parking lot projects had to be postponed a year because permits were not requested in time. An engaged public involved in this process may have helped to avoid many (if not all) of these embarrassing failures.
Where do we go from here?
The planning process seems to finally have taken a step forward with the hiring of an Owners Project Manager (OPM) at the urging of RIDE. The OPM is reviewing the history detailed in this article and has requested we once again delay our stage 2 application, this time to February 2020. I sincerely hope that the OPM will recognize the damage that the exclusion of public input has caused.
Assuming our Stage 2 application is eventually approved, the public will have to approve an $80+ million bond to fund construction. The prospects for success for such a bond are by no means a certainty, as the very people shut out of the process for the past nine months will be needed to push for its passage.
The success of this plan depends on the support of an engaged community, without which it may very well fail, whether that be at the hands of RIDE or at the ballot box. In order for that outcome to be avoided, the entire community must immediately be extensively re-engaged in the process. Regardless of the final outcome, our experience of the past year should highlight the importance of an engaged community, what can be accomplished when we work together, and how it can all fall apart when the people are removed from the process.