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Majority of summer repairs to Providence schools still not done

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The majority of repairs slated for Providence public schools over the summer have not yet been completed, according to a construction update released by the city on Wednesday.

The list of projects, billed as part of a $20 million bond for spring and summer repair projects, range from roof replacements to fire code upgrades to heating system repairs.

The construction delays come as state officials, poised to take control of the district, have referenced possible closures of the worst school buildings.

“Some of these buildings really should not have children in them in the present condition that they’re in. That’s the reality,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said earlier this week.

Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office released the list over the summer in the wake of the scathing report by Johns Hopkins University, whose researchers had an overwhelmingly negative view of the Providence school buildings.

The construction projects were planned prior to the Hopkins report, as part of the tail end of the city’s five-year 2015 school capital plan and the beginning of its 2020 plan. (The 2020 fiscal year began July 1.)

Only one-third of the projects on the original list provided to Target 12 are completed, according to the construction status update released by the city.

Eight projects from the summer projects list are now marked as “complete,” while 16 others are either under construction, pre-construction or “in-design.”

The completed projects include two roof repairs in schools that were slated to have full roof replacements. They also include a $120,000 cafeteria HVAC job at Esek Hopkins Middle School, $192,000 in electrical upgrades at Carl Lauro, and several roof replacements.

A project to repair fire damage in a classroom at Vartan Gregorian Elementary was also completed, although that was part of an insurance claim and not the capital plan.

The incomplete projects include multimillion-dollar roof replacements at Hope High School and Vartan Gregorian, $77,000 worth of fire code violations at Martin Luther King Elementary, a boiler replacement at Carl Lauro, a $151,000 heater replacement at Kizirian Elementary, and multiple other projects.

School has been in session for about six weeks. Asked why the summer construction list was not finished before the start of school, Elorza’s press secretary Victor Morente said there were several factors at play.

“The timeline for the completion of projects can be affected by several factors including the availability of material, labor force, and other necessary approvals,” Morente said.

“That’s a little disconcerting,” Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro said. “Especially the fire code violations. … What’s the accountability going to be?”

While summer break and other school vacations are typically good times to kick construction into high gear, Morente said some work would continue during the school year “in a strategic manner in coordination with school officials so that it does not interrupt student learning.”

The summer projects list represents just a fraction of the total number of construction projects slated for Providence’s 41 schools. The 2020 school capital plan includes $278 million worth of work.

An interactive map maintained by the city (see below) shows the status of the projects at each school. Blue markers are used for projects from the 2015 plan and red markers for the 2020 plan.

(Story continues below map)

Providence is not the only city struggling to maintain its aging school buildings, as detailed in the Jacobs report in 2017. But a spotlight has been on Providence ever since the devastating Hopkins report, and the subsequent decision by the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo to take control of the school district.

Infante-Green said earlier this week she expects school closures to be part of the eventual plan to turnaround the district.

“If there’s asbestos on the floor, and kids can’t go up there … I know that we’re used to this, but this is not normal in most systems,” Infante-Green said.

“We’re looking at the different conditions of all the buildings to see which ones do not make sense to keep investing in,” Infante-Green said. “We’re putting in money to fix roofs that we’ll have to keep fixing.”

Raimondo also alluded to school closures in Providence during a taping of a recent podcast with David Axelrod, a former Obama administration official.

Calabro said some teachers were surprised by Raimondo’s comments.

“I think there was a lot of anxiety that came with that,” Calabro said. “What schools, is it going to be my school? … I’ve been in my school for 26 years and it’s not the Taj Mahal, but it has character.”

She said she hopes the union is at the table for any discussions about closing school buildings or merging schools.

“I would hope if the schools were unsafe for our kids, then kids wouldn’t be in them,” Calabro added.

Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for Infante-Green, said any plans to close schools would involve community input.

“We have no immediate plans to close or consolidate buildings,” Geoghegan said in an email. She also said the state would need the results of a financial analysis, currently underway, to assist in those discussions.

“The current facilities are operational, but I think the Commissioner’s point is that the bar is set far too low,” Geoghegan said. “Instead of meeting minimum requirements, or focusing only on the repairs that ensure schools are warm, safe, and dry, we need to dream bigger and start to focus on the investments that will create truly 21st century learning facilities for all students.”

The state takeover is slated to begin Nov. 1. Infante-Green is expected to announce her pick for superintendent in the coming days, who will help form a full turnaround plan for Providence schools. The plan is expected to be finished in January.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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