PAWTUCKET — A classroom at the Winters Elementary School where a sign taped to a window warned “Do not Open. Window will fall out!” was chosen as the backdrop for a press conference on Friday morning where union officials, including Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals Frank Flynn and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, lobbied for passage of the American Jobs Acts bill.
The broken windows at the 50-year-old school at 481 Broadway are just part of a concerning “fix-it” list that includes asbestos-wrapped furnace pipes, cracked floor tiles, roof leaks, broken plumbing and other maintenance problems that need to be addressed. Aside from mechanical deficiencies are a poorly designed layout that involves the use of cramped portable classrooms, a dimly lit cafeteria-gymnasium-auditorium and an outdoor physical education area that is an asphalt-covered lot.
Flynn and Cicilline were joined by Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee, Rhode Island Building Trades Union President Michael Sabitoni, Pawtucket Teachers Alliance President Ronald Beaupre and Pawtucket School Supt. Kim Mercer for a tour of the school, provided by Winters' principal Keith Hemenway. The condition of the building, the officials say, illustrates the desperate need for the school modernization funds provided by the American Jobs Act.
Hemenway led the group around the sprawling, one-story school building, which was built in 1960 and 1961. He pointed out that all of the wiring for upgraded fire alarm and sprinkler systems had to be run along the exterior of all of the school's walls because of the asbestos wall construction.
In the boiler room, he showed areas where the asbestos covering on the pipes was starting to deteriorate. The tour group also viewed a boy's bathroom in which one of the two urinals was unusable and covered with a plastic trash bag, a girls' bathroom where a taped sign warned of a broken exterior door and several classrooms where wastebaskets were being used to collect water under leaking ceiling tiles.
“This is an example of why we should pass the Jobs Act,” said Flynn. He noted that while the first part of President Barack Obama's Jobs bill having to do with tax cuts for small businesses had failed on Thursday, he said it was vital to education that a section having to do with putting workers back on the job and modernizing infrastructure such as public schools be given approval.
Flynn noted that there are over 120 school buildings throughout Rhode Island in need of significant modernization and that this grant money would be used to make them healthy, safe and conducive to learning. He said that when he visits schools he sees “great things in place and teachers who are working hard,” but that there should be a better plan to keep the buildings and technology up to date. “Let's see if we can pass this for all schools in Rhode Island,” he stated.
Nee said it was “an eye-opener to take a tour like this.” He said the Jobs Act represents what could be done to improve the environment for both teachers and students while at the same time putting people in the construction trades back to work. He added that in the matter of improving education, it is time for both Democrats and Republicans and public and private interests to come together.
Sabitoni noted that the Jobs bill should be considered a “two-fer” in that it would create a better learning environment for the nation's school children while also putting people back to work, particularly in the construction field where unemployment is over 50 percent in some trades. He noted that things like window and roof repairs and other building projects “are jobs that can't be outsourced” and said this grant money would greatly help the local economy.
Cicilline said that part of the Jobs bill is an investment in education while it is also about “securing our economic future.” He said that the bill's passage would provide more than $85 million for improvements to Rhode Island public schools in grades K-12 and $12.7 million for its community colleges.
Cicilline stated that things like exposed wires, windows that can't be opened and an asphalt lot to hold gym classes on “is not something that is acceptable in Rhode Island,” yet these conditions exist in “too many places that I see.”
The congressman added that the American Jobs Act “is part of the president's message of rebuilding our country,” and said that the entire Rhode Island Congressional delegation supports the bill's passage.
Beaupre noted that while that day's tour had focused on the problems at Winters Elementary School, “This is only one problem. Each of our 17 public schools throughout Pawtucket is in desperate need of renovation.” He added, “The American Jobs Act will put people back to work and improve our schools.”