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A Hummel Report Investigation

Power Play

This week our focus is the Central Falls School Department. Not the much-publicized firing of its high school teachers; rather a long-running battle between the superintendent and Mayor Charles Moreau over the condition of the city's school buildings and a controversial repair made to one.  Jim Hummel sits down with Superintendent Frances Gallo for a behind-the-scenes look at (as The Hummel Report has revealed over the past several months) an all-too-familiar pattern of action coming out of City Hall.

 

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``With his city in receivership and his administration the target of state and federal investigations, Mayor Charles Moreau's political future is very much up in the air. But this week we find that decisions he's made over the past several years will have a ripple effect - not only on the city, but on the School Department as well.''

For nearly 20 years, the state of Rhode Island has footed the bill for running the Central Falls School system. But it is the city which owns - and is supposed to maintain - the department's buildings, many of which have serious problems.

Gallo: ``Our children should not be freezing in school.  So we were turning to (the city)  to assist us with boiler repairs.''
Frances Gallo became superintendent here three years ago. We sat down this week to talk with her about her relationship with Mayor Charles Moreau.

Gallo: ``It was nonexistent from the start.  I did make an appointment, I did  try to reach out to him.  We did sit several times, in his office at all times, and I went through my entire schedule. He was always demeaning, making sure I understood that I was nobody and I don't have a schedule compared to him.''

Gallo learned early on that any decision about repairing a school in the city had to be run through City Hall.

Gallo: ``We learned there was a new rule - recently established - that any time I asked for a simple repair it  was not to be approved unless I went to the mayor.''

Hummel: ``Personally.''

Gallo: ``Personally. So when I learned that I said, `Okay, let's go.' And so I went to the mayor that particular day and waited in his office.  And that's when I learned he doesn't take walk-in appointments.''

Hummel: ``Was he there?''

Gallo: ``Oh yes, he was there. I could see him.''

Hummel: ``And he wouldn't come out to see you?''

Gallo: `` He would not.''

Hummel: ``And so what did you do?''

Gallo: ``I thanked him. I left, I told him...''

Hummel: ``But you actually saw him? He didn't say, `Okay let's work this out in the next 10 minutes?''

Gallo: `` No, no.''

Last summer, the condition of some of the buildings reached a crisis stage. The high school needed a new boiler and Capt. Hunt Elementary had a roof problem that threatened to close it down a month before school started.

The school department - in conjunction with the state Department of Education - had done a comprehensive study of what needed to be done and was able to secure $5 million in federal stimulus money, planning to use a portion of it for emergency repairs, the rest for long-term projects.

Gallo quickly found out, though, Mayor Moreau held the checkbook, and was calling all of the shots, with virtually no input from a Facilities Committee made up of representatives from both the city and the school department.

Gallo: ``I didn't know about the bid, didn't know it was the only bidder, didn't know how it was awarded, we learned that it was awarded.''

The *bid* was for more than half a million dollars in emergency repairs to Captain Hunt elementary, which was built in 1973.

The lone bid went to a company whose president played a major role in the mayor's re-election campaign last year. From the start, the company, Iron Construction, began requesting change orders, saying there was a rotted beam that needed extensive work. As a result school officials were forced to close the building,  and send 200 kindergartners sent to rent space in Pawtucket for this entire academic year.

Gallo: ``Was it such a rotted piece of steel that it needed to be repaired? Was it really that bad?''
Hummel: ``Do you think  it's questionable, that assessment?''

Gallo: ``Well, we had never had that kind of a problem there. I certainly wouldn't know. Yet we have  an engineer who says that's a really a radical move, I'm not sure you need to take it. Everything in the writing suggested we were right. Okay wait a minute.''

The original study called for another floor to be added on top of the elementary school, so Gallo said it would be wasted money to sink additional resources into the roof. Since the building would be vacant she wanted it ``buttoned up'' and the work stopped.

Gallo: ``Don't make any moves, don't waste any more money, don't spent more money because we need to decide what are we going to do.''

Despite that, the company kept working well into the fall and the price of the original bid more than doubled. The original bid was $587,000. With more than $620,000 in change orders, the total came to $1.2 million. The building had the entire brick exterior on one side replaced, extensive roof work and a brand new ceiling and lights in the cafeteria.

Hummel: ``So at this point on that $5 million bond, you don't really know how much has been used?''

Gallo: ``No we don't.''

Hummel: ``Is that because the bills are being paid out of  city hall?''

Gallo: ``Of course. I  just thought it was absolute foolishness on his part. This is about children, it never should have been able any kind of power, between a superintendent and a mayor.''

In Central Falls, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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