Winsor fire safety code variance extended

Winsor fire safety code variance extended

William Winsor Elementary School has run with a fire safety code variance for more than 14 years. The library and several rooms at Winsor Elementary sit several feet below grade, but are not truly underground. Regardless, fire safety code mandates that a sprinkler be installed in the below grade areas. (Breeze photo by Jacquelyn Moorehead)

SMITHFIELD – Fourteen years ago, the Smithfield School District received a fire code variance at Winsor Elementary School with the understanding the school would be closed within five years.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board granted an additional extension to the district under similar circumstances. The stipulations are that the school be shut down in three years pending passage of the $45 million elementary school reconfiguration bond, or install a sprinkler system in “below grade” areas of the school.

Supt. Judy Paolucci presented the district’s case to the board, requesting additional time for the town to decide on the general election bond question.

After serving her first year as superintendent, Paolucci said it went against her character to blame Winsor’s faults on the “sins of the past.”

“I said, we are planning to truly close it this time,” Paolucci said.

Should the town vote no on the bond, Paolucci estimated costs for sprinklers in the library and surrounding rooms of the school to be around $300,000.

“It’s a waste in the long run for the town, that investment is better in a new building than to an old building that is not ADA compliant,” Paolucci said. Various issues plague the building. At the top of Paolucci’s priorities are noncompliance with fire code, and lack of accessibility for the handicapped.

“The town’s not doing a good job taking care of the safety of the children. It’s heart-wrenching,” Paolucci said. “This is what keeps me up at night.”

Winsor Principal Brian Ackerman said the building’s lack of accessibility caused disruptions in the past. He said a student using crutches following surgery chose to scoot up the stairs on his buttocks to get to the second floor.

“In other instances, we had to move the whole classroom down,” Ackerman said.

Built in 1933, Winsor’s first floor gradually grades approximately five feet below ground where the library and several classrooms are located. By law, any room below grade needs a fire suppression system such as sprinklers, according to Paolucci.

The second floor houses classrooms and a joint art and music room. There are no sprinklers in areas above grade at the school, as it is not mandated by fire safety code, Paolucci said.

The halls are crowded with totes, desks, and other furniture and supplies. Despite an addition in the late 1960s adding a joint cafeteria, gym and auditorium, Ackerman said the school lacks the storage capacity of newer schools.

“There’s just not enough room here,” he said.

When receiving the fire code variance in 2004, the state board mandated occupancy limits in the below-grade portion of the school, forcing classrooms to be removed from the area.

Paolucci said the money spent on installing sprinklers will most likely not be eligible for Rhode Island Department of Education reimbursement, and would be investing in a school not up to standards for educating children in the 21st century.

Should the reconfiguration bond pass, Paolucci said the plan begins with expanding McCabe Elementary School to make room for Winsor students, then closing Winsor by year three.

Old County Road School will see the addition of an elevator to make the school ADA compliant, ending concern about students not being able to get to classes.

Paolucci officially announced an additional $454,000 in safety funding awarded to the district by the Department of Justice.

The grant will supply funding for both Smithfield High School and Gallagher Middle School to receive double entry door systems requiring visitors to flow through the main office.

“This will provide holding areas in all of our schools and improve the safety of our students,” Paolucci said.

Access control systems will be added at both schools as well, allowing better monitoring and control over who is entering the building during and after school hours.

Lastly, panic buttons will be installed in school offices to enable staff to quickly and discretely alert police during an emergency.

Paolucci said the new door systems are included in the elementary reconfiguration plan, but can be funded through the grant if the bond fails.

The library and several other rooms at Winsor Elementary sits several feet below grade, but are not underground. Fire safety code mandates sprinklers still must be installed in the below grade areas.