District taps brakes on school building plans

After widespread confusion and public pushback, Gina Bae says: ‘We need to slow this down’

By Josh Bickford
Posted 2/10/22

Gina Bae said the message from Barrington residents was clear: School officials need to slow down the process.

Barrington school leaders decided late last week to pump the brakes on an in-depth …

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District taps brakes on school building plans

After widespread confusion and public pushback, Gina Bae says: ‘We need to slow this down’


Gina Bae said the message from Barrington residents was clear: School officials need to slow down the process.

Barrington school leaders decided late last week to pump the brakes on an in-depth school facilities study and any future decision about whether to make repairs to the existing schools or whether to build new schools. 

Ms. Bae, chairwoman of the Barrington School Committee, said the public comments shared during the Jan. 31 workshop revealed a need to slow down the process and better explain what was happening and why.

“It does feel like we skipped over the beginning steps,” Ms. Bae said in an interview last Friday afternoon.

Ms. Bae said school officials need to do a better job presenting a clear view of what the facilities study revealed: overcrowded elementary schools, a leaky high school roof, old and outdated mechanical systems, and more. 

“We’re not talking about running out of space in the next 20 years,” Ms. Bae said. “We’re running out of space right now.”

Residents who spoke at the Jan. 31 workshop that was focused on the facilities challenged a lot of the information shared by school officials and their hired consultant, Kaestle Boos Associates. (KBA is the same firm that handled the design work on the Barrington Middle School construction project.)

Residents said information used in the presentation and in the Stage I submission to the Rhode Island Department of Education was questionable or, in some cases, wrong. 

For example, KBA architect Kate Jessup said some of the town’s elementary schools did not have libraries, but officials later conceded that the schools had rooms that served as libraries, although they had originally been designed as classrooms.

Other residents asked for officials to provide the engineering reports and other information that detailed the buildings’ deficiencies. Some also challenged earlier construction options created by KBA that called for the elimination of Nayatt and Sowams elementary schools and the move to a new grade grouping for schools: PreK to grade 2, and grades 3 to 5.

And some residents, including Bill Loehning, said the whole process seems very rushed. They said school officials could have done a better job communicating with the public. 

“Part of the disconnect here is that there’s a lot of information that a lot of us feel like we’re hearing for the first time,” said Mr. Loehning. “There’s been a lot of work done… which is great, but as a taxpayer you want to feel like you’re well-educated in what’s going on, and know that you have a say in where this is all going.”

A member of the school building committee shared a similar message during a meeting a few days after the workshop. Bob Wilmarth, who works as the facilities director for another school district in Rhode Island, said officials had skipped over all the basics during the Jan. 31 workshop. He said the public was shown a slide that said repairs would cost $70 million, but people want to know what exactly needed to be repaired or replaced. Mr. Wilmarth said school officials needed to push the pause button and back up, and have a community meeting to share important information and data that committee members already know about. 

Ms. Bae and other agreed. School officials recently decided to delay the Stage 2 submission. Ms. Bae said the submission was initially set for Feb. 15, but officials have extended that date to September. 

“We need to slow this down,” she said.

Much of the urgency fueling the facilities work is tied directly to the deadlines for cashing in on construction and repair reimbursements and other incentives from the Rhode Island Department of Education. 

Consultant says repairs would be $70 million

School officials and their hired consultants offered a glimpse at district facilities in the Jan. 31 workshop. The online event highlighted the physical conditions of the school buildings in Barrington, as well as the educational needs, student enrollment projections, and other data collected over the last few months.

Ms. Jessup, from Kaestle Boos Associates, shared the presentation and spoke about the process. 

Early in the presentation she shared a slide that offered this statement: “Barrington Middle School was just the first step towards bringing Barrington Public Schools updated and educationally relevant school facilities.”

Ms. Jessup said the Stage 2 application is due by Sept. 15, 2022, adding that the district could receive reimbursements and incentives ranging from 35 percent to 52.5 percent. She then shared a slide listing the cost estimates for repair work needed in Barrington Schools that had been identified by KBA engineers:

• Hampden Meadows: $8,373,038

• Nayatt: $7,462,360

• Primrose Hill: $5,049,068

• Sowams: $9,157,814

• Barrington High School: $39,230,128

• Total: $69,272,408

Ms. Jessup said repairing the existing school buildings was like driving a good Honda — it was going to cost more to keep the car on the road in the future, she said.

But while the list offered the repair estimates, it failed to identify any of the specific problems. That did not raise any questions from the school committee members, but it did elicit concerns from residents, including Lisa Daft, a former member of the town’s Committee on Appropriations. She asked if there is an itemized list of the buildings’ deficiencies, adding that $39 million for the high school seems a bit excessive. 

Officials said there is a list, and directed Ms. Daft to the Stage 1 submission — a 600-plus-page document — linked to the school website. 

Some residents wanted to know more about the options for repairing or replacing the local schools. KBA officials had earlier released a document detailing six construction options ranging widely in scope and price, but Ms. Jessup and her colleague Sean Schmigle said the community would need to wait until the next workshop for that information. Ms. Bae shared a similar message to residents curious about the options.

“We’re not talking about building new schools or tearing down old schools,” she said.

Ms. Daft and others, including longtime resident Charles Chapin, challenged that statement. 

“You came across that a lot of this stuff has already been decided,” Mr. Chapin said. He continued that it felt like school officials were railroading this new construction project through. 

Thomas “TR” Rimoshytus said the community has not even discussed alternatives to building new schools. He said a lot of people are concerned about the cost of this type of work.

Is population growing or shrinking?

A consultant hired by the KBA team, which was hired by Barrington school officials, spoke about school enrollment. Manuel Cordero discussed building capacities and “functional utilization” in schools. His message was that Barrington schools are over-capacity, although a district presentation from just a few weeks back did not reflect a significant increase in student population. 

That presentation, shared on Jan. 20, 2022, showed that the district’s student population in 2011-12 was 3,400 students, and that the current enrollment has dropped to 3,384. 

Projections offered by NESDEC estimated student population would increase to 3,481 in the next 10 years, or 81 students more than Barrington had in 2011. 

Susannah Holloway, a current member of the town’s Committee on Appropriations questioned whether the enrollment data included in the Stage 1 submission to RIDE was accurate, specifically the numbers for Primrose Hill. 

Ms. Jessup said KBA was in the process of getting updated enrollment data.

Ms. Holloway also questioned other information included in the Stage 1 submission. She said KBA officials had included universal pre-kindergarten as a district goal, when that decision had not yet been made by the school committee. That determination would likely impact student enrollment in the district.

Ms. Jessup said it was “a nuance in the verbiage,” adding that the state could mandate universal pre-kindergarten in the future.

Ms. Holloway said the options drafted by KBA are being driven by the fallacy that the school committee has already determined universal pre-kindergarten as a district goal. 

Ms. Bae said that has not been written into the Stage 1 submission as a definite. 

“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Ms. Holloway said, adding that the school committee should first discuss universal pre-kindergarten with the community. 

Students want fun schools

Ms. Jessup spent time discussing the “visioning sessions” held with students and teachers throughout the district. The sessions revealed some of the ideas students had shared about what they would want to include in a new or ideal school. 

Ms. Jessup displayed pictures drawn by local students — their schools had trampolines, and treehouses, and bouncy slides, and water fountains, and indoor “football courts.”

She said the students were looking for “whimsey and excitement” in their schools. 

Later in the workshop, Mr. Chapin and his wife Kay asked why KBA officials did not reach out to the students’ parents. They asked why the parents had not been included in the visioning sessions.

Mr. Chapin said he did not hear any mention of reading, writing and math. He said there needs to be a focus on the core subjects if Barrington students are going to have a chance at succeeding later in life. 

Ms. Bae said the basics are still being taught in local schools.

What about neighborhood schools?

Barrington resident Thomas Peck said it is important for the public to have trust in KBA as an independent consultant. 

He said that during a previous meeting, KBA officials had discussed how they could “sell” Option 6 to the community. Option 6 calls for the elimination of neighborhood elementary schools and the construction of a single PreK-to-grade 2 school. 

“That was very disconcerting,” Mr. Peck said. “That’s not the behavior I would expect from an independent consultant.”

In an interview with the Barrington Times, Ms. Bae said no one is leaning in any direction regarding the options shared by KBA. In fact, she said KBA is re-thinking the options. 

When asked if KBA would be eligible to bid on a construction project for new elementary schools in Barrington, Ms. Bae said she assumed they would be eligible.

Late in the Jan. 31 school workshop, Barrington resident Anna Amoiradaki spoke to the school committee members and KBA officials. She said there has not been a lot of transparency with the school department recently — she referenced a change to the honors designation and Level III courses that surprised many high school parents last year. 

She said she does not feel good about where education is in Barrington right now. Nor does she feel good about the possibility of eliminating neighborhood elementary schools, and replacing them with a single PreK to Grade 2 school.

Ms. Amoiradaki said she walks her youngest child to Sowams School each day, and Principal Jim Callahan is there to greet each and every student. 

“He knows each student’s name,” she said. “I’ve never seen that in my life … that would not be the case with these larger schools.”

Ms. Amoiradaki said she really hopes Barrington will not be demolishing any neighborhood schools. 

She also said school officials recently saddled taxpayers with a $68.4 million bond to pay for the new middle school, and pitching an additional bond to pay for more new schools could impact the diversity in Barrington, restricting it to those who can afford to pay the ever-rising taxes. 

She suggested school officials complete the necessary repairs but avoid the new, costly construction.

Ms. Amoiradaki also spoke about the value of human capital. 

She said a great education is the result of great teachers, not great buildings. She asked why there have not been any field trips recently, no after school enrichment, no before school support offered by teachers. 

“We’re talking about excellence,” she said, “but we’re not doing the simple things.”

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