Warwick planning to build new Toll Gate, Pilgrim high schools

A PRELIMINARY RENDERING shows a new high school in Warwick. The city's school department is planning to construct new high schools to replace both Pilgrim High School and Toll Gate High School. / COURTESY WARWICK PUBLIC SCHOOLS
A PRELIMINARY RENDERING shows a new high school in Warwick. The city's school department is planning to construct new high schools to replace both Pilgrim High School and Toll Gate High School. / COURTESY WARWICK PUBLIC SCHOOLS

WARWICK – The city’s school department has put together early plans to replace its two aging high schools in the near future, joining the chorus of other local school districts who either have improved or are improving their respective educational infrastructures.

The proposed $350 million project, which needs voter approval this November, would call for both Toll Gate and Pilgrim high schools – originally built 50 and 60 years ago, respectively – to be completely replaced. Approximately 52% of the project, would be reimbursed by the R.I. Department of Education, leaving the city to pay $184.8 million for the project. Warwick School Superintendent Lynn Dambruch told Providence Business News Monday that the reimbursement would help the city get “one high school for free.”

Steve Gothberg, school director of construction and capital projects who is leading the project, said much of RIDE’s reimbursement is coming from the $250 million school construction bond that voters across Rhode Island approved back in 2018, and the new $300 million construction bond voters will decide on this November.

When asked if any of the city’s share of the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds would be put toward building the new schools, both Gothberg and Dambruch said “no.” Gothberg said that the funds would not be applied for school construction based on the way the ARPA grants are set up to do.

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RIDE representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Dambruch said both Toll Gate and Pilgrim are in disrepair, saying that the school department has been “putting band aids on these schools for decades.” Additionally, Toll Gate in early 2020 had to close the school for a week due to a water main break that flooded much of the school’s first floor.

“They need to be replaced,” she said. “They’re at the end of their useful life.”

The school department will have this week two informational sessions showcasing the proposals to residents, the first at Pilgrim on Monday and the other on Thursday at Toll Gate; both sessions will be from 5-7 p.m.

Warwick Assistant School Superintendent and Director of Secondary Education William D. McCaffrey said discussions about the new schools had been ongoing within the city for the last three years. Renovation proposals for the schools were submitted to RIDE, McCaffrey said, but the department told school officials that renovations “were not the way to go” and RIDE would not reimburse the city.

Therefore, the city then came up with a plan to construct two new high schools on the same sites as the current schools, Dambruch and McCaffrey said, similarly to how East Providence’s new high school was constructed. Both main school buildings will be demolished, except for Toll Gate’s Career and Technical Center. Each school will be about 250,000 square feet in size and each will house approximately 1,200 students, Dambruch and McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey also said the city doesn’t have the acreage or infrastructure available to build a single new high school, in addition to Rhode Island TF Green International Airport taking up a major piece of land in the middle of the city. “We’re not a community where we have acres and acres of land; we’re a developed city,” he said.

McCaffrey said the mood around the city about the proposed new schools has been “very positive” and residents realize that new school buildings are needed in the city.

“Any parent that has a child involved in activities at facilities at the other schools, and they realize our schools are not up to par,” McCaffrey said.

Additionally, Dambruch said the new schools would allow for 21st century learning, including having collaborative spaces, new technology and new athletic facilities. At Pilgrim, the football field’s bleachers are in disrepair to where seating for games is not allowed, Dambruch said.

If voters approve the bond measure in November to give the green light on the new schools, McCaffrey and Dambruch said school officials would spend about a year on design work before construction commences. Dambruch said the city has five years to complete construction on the new schools. Gothberg said the RIDE reimbursement has a five-year window starting in December, hence the deadline to finish the project.

McCaffrey did say residents could see a slight bump in their property tax bills to cover the construction costs. City residents living in the Gaspee section, depending on the issuance of the bond and interest rate, could see an additional $250 in their property tax payments, McCaffrey said. However, both Dambruch and McCaffrey said the benefits, such as economic growth, that new schools will bring to the city will outweigh the property tax increases.

“It promotes new families to move into our city to attend schools,” Dambruch said. “A lot of families, when they’re buying homes, they look at the schools. It would be exciting to send your child to a brand new 21St century high school.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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