DeGoes gets up-close look at condition of East Providence schools
EAST PROVIDENCE — It's been a whirlwind first two weeks on the job for Interim East Providence School Superintendent Dr. John DeGoes as he not only attempts to make sure the opening of the 2012-13 year gets off without a hitch but also gains an understanding of the condition of the system's aging and deteriorating buildings.
As part of that discovery, Department Director of Facilities and Grounds Edward Catelli and East Providence High School Facilities Supervisor Anthony Feola led Dr. DeGoes, School Committee Chairman Charlie Tsonos and the media through a tour of the high school Thursday morning, Aug. 16.
The 62-year-old building is currently undergoing a partial asbestos abatement program, which is included in a total $15 million system-wide buildings upgrade.
The work being done at the high school comes from the initial $6 million bond issued to the East Providence School Department last year as well as $1 million bridge loan provided by the state. A new fire suppression system has been in place at the high school since the start of the 2011-12 term. Similar work was also done at both Martin and Riverside Middle Schools.
"The high school alone could suck up all the money, but we have to attack the entire system," said Mr. Catelli. "We need to be smart about how we use the remaining money. We have other schools that need asbestos abatement, that need new fire alarm systems and sprinklers in areas of assembly, that need new roofs. It never ends."
Mr. Catelli also alluded to a proposal being considered by the Budget Commission, which would include school closings and consolidations. Oldham Elementary, for instance, is one of the buildings possibly being shuttered down the line.
"We have a small window of time to do these repairs. If school ends on June 20, then on June 21 we should be ready to go with the contractors and the architects," Mr. Catelli added. "If schools are going to be closed, we don't to spend what little money have on them. A final decision needs to be made. What we really need is for everyone to be on board so we know where the other money should go."
The construction underway at the high school includes asbestos abatement of some 40,000-square feet of hallway and classroom floor tile, representing about a third of the over 120,000 total area that needs to be replaced. The project will continue into next summer.
Asbestos-contaminated window caulking is also being removed. In addition, three classrooms were demolished and two renovated computer labs, with new electrical systems and smartboards, are on their way to be completed. All aspects of the project are said to be on time and will be finished before the official start of school on Sept. 6,
While this little bit helps, decades of neglect under past political and administrative regimes has left the building in severe disrepair. In truth, the high school alone could use tens of millions in improvements, but according to Mr. Feola what's happening now, at least, is a start.
"All we've done in the past is put out fires. We never looked at all the things that needed to be done," Mr. Feola said. "This place was built rock solid, but there's a ton of work that we could do."
The current project does not include any other infrastructure improvements, particularly in regards to the failing plumbing at the high school. According to Mr. Feola, the original design of the building makes even the smallest of plumbing tasks "extremely difficult." Several of the school's water fountains have been and will remain out of service.
Other construction still being done or already completed at the high school includes new windows and drainage in the pool, new lighting in the auditorium and a new heating control system throughout its entirety. These elements are part of an energy performance bond. The work is being completed by Johnson Controls, one of the country's foremost companies in the area of energy efficiency and optimization. Mr. Catelli noted Johnson Controls does not get paid unless it lives up to its promise of saving the district on energy-related costs.
Listening intently, Dr. DeGoes quietly walked the hallways of the high school, soaking in what he was hearing from those charged with keeping the buildings open, operating and up to the various codes. When they were done, he acknowledged their efforts, which he said go above-and-beyond their job descriptions.
"One of the reasons why I was anxious to come back is because of the kind of people, like Ed and Tony, who work in the district," said Dr. DeGoes, who previously served as East Providence School Superintendent back in the early 1990s.
"They put themselves out there," he continued. "They're very talented, multifaceted people. We're fortunate to have these kinds of people working in the district. They bring things to bare that are not part of the budget to keep our facilities functional."
For Dr. DeGoes, building tours like the one he took at the high school Thursday are very revealing. He said he's spent the better part of his first two weeks focusing on the start of the school year. Going forward, he's trying to understand what he needs to do to help formulate a strategic capital program, an idea the East Providence Budget Commission has urged both the school department and city to institute.
"Right now we're concentrating on safety issues," Dr. DeGoes added. "We want to make sure all of our schools have a safe environment for the students, teachers and people who use them."
Chairman Tsonos echoed the superintendent's thoughts on the system's personnel, adding praise as well for the teachers and administrators. He also said it's imperative for all sides to coalesce in an attempt to rectify the condition of the system's buildings.
"Unfortunately, some people look at us — Dr. DeGoes, Ed, Tony and myself — and try to find fault, put the blame on us, but that only adds to the problem," said Mr. Tsonos. "What we need to being doing, however, is working together creatively to come up with solutions. We need to prioritize and get as much community involvement as we can.
"We have big problems. We need to bring everyone together. We need to get the state involved because they have access to funds that we don't. We need to work with them as a partner because these are problems we're not going to solve tomorrow. We need to put a plan in place that has both long and short-term solutions."