CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Central Falls High School student Desiree Delgado-Pedraza won’t drink the water at her school because it smells so bad.
“I would rather pay for water at the corner store and spend my last dollar than drink this water,” she said. “I try to look at the bright side because at least I have the money to get clean water, but not a lot of kids do.”
A 17-year-old junior, Delgado-Pedraza is hoping that the General Assembly will pass legislation authorizing $144 million in borrowing to improve Central Falls schools, including $120 million for a new high school.
The 1.3-square-mile, majority-Latino city, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, would be responsible for borrowing $5.76 million, or 4 percent of the total. The state, which took over financial control of the city’s school district 30 years ago, would borrow the rest.
Delgado-Pedraza had a simple message for state officials: “Remember the small people,” she said. “Remember that just because we don’t speak English that well, or maybe our color of skin is different, it doesn’t make us any less worthy. Our education still matters.”
She said she shouldn’t have to fight twice as hard for clean drinking water or to prepare for college than a student in a wealthier community such as Barrington.
Built in 1927, the Central Falls High School building at 24 Summer St. has been beset by leaky roofs, balky boilers, mold, peeling paint, and falling debris. The proposed new high school would be built on Higginson Avenue, near existing athletic fields and basketball courts.
Delgado-Pedraza said a new high school, with clean modern classrooms, would mean so much to her younger brothers and sisters — and to all members of the next generation of Central Falls students.
“It would be amazing,” she said. “My siblings would grow up with everything that I didn’t have, that my parents didn’t have.”
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the bill on Thursday evening after the full Senate session. The Senate version is sponsored by Senator Jonathon Acosta, a Central Falls Democrat.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the legislation on Wednesday night. And Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat, called his companion bill “an absolutely vital piece of legislation for the Central Falls comeback story.”
The legislation has been in the works for seven years, and it has received support from the City Council and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s office, he said. The proposal calls for the state to provide its share of the funding up front, rather than having the city front the money and seek state reimbursement later, he said.
With a population of less than 20,000 and a budget of $19.3 million, Central Falls cannot afford to front all the money, Giraldo said. “It makes repairs or a new school literally impossible for a city like Central Falls,” he said.
But the city could borrow its share — $5.76 million — if voters approve it in a November 2022 referendum, he said. “We are not asking for more money than we are entitled to,” he said. “We are simply asking that it be made possible to fix our schools and pay for our portion.”
Giraldo said the current high school building is in “extremely rough shape.”
“The state’s poorest children are attending schools with leaky ceilings, broken boilers, dirty water coming out of the fountains, and our high school requires emergency repair after emergency repair,” he said. “Recently, we had the ceiling collapse in the library, putting it out of service for months.”
During a tour of the high school Wednesday, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera said that ceiling debris fell on the high school stage when she was being sworn in as a City Council member in 2017, and fresh evidence of crumbling mortar was visible on the stage during Wednesday’s tour.
“Our students need to know that we care for them,” Rivera said. “Our kids deserve to have a space where they can be comfortable , where they can learn properly. They are not comfortable here.”
Central Falls schools Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo described the existing high school as a dark place for bright students.
“We often talk about how our students are so bright, and this learning space really doesn’t rise to meet them,” she said. “One-third of the classrooms don’t even have windows.”
Rory Marty, the school district’s director of operations and safety, said the district had fixed leaks in the school’s tar and gravel roof, and removed mold from behind plasterboard. But he said water manages to infiltrate the school’s brick, and the old building requires many patches and “Band-Aids.”
“When we see a problem, we take care of it,” he said. “But it’s difficult to always patch a severed artery.”
City Solicitor Matthew Jerzyk said Central Falls recognizes that the state would be paying a high proportion of the school project, so the per-pupil cost for the new Central Falls high school would be less than the per-pupil cost for East Providence’s new $190 million high school. “We are building a Chevy, not a Maserati,” he said.
During Wednesday’s tour, science teacher David Upegui stood in his classroom, showing a reporter a photo of him as a student in the same classroom back in 1993. “Nothing has changed,” he said of the classroom. “And that is exactly my point.”
Upegui said he and his students have done their best to improve the learning space. But dark water stains were visible on ceiling tiles in the classroom, and there was a gaping hole in a tile near a handwritten poster that read: “The Greater the Struggle, the More Glorious the Triumph.”
Upegui pointed out photos of students from past years of advanced placement biology classes. He ticked off their names and where they have ended up since leaving Central Falls High — the list included nurses and doctors, graduates of Harvard University and the Naval Academy.
“The point I’m trying to make is these kids are incredibly talented. We have evidence,” he said. “Who can possibly say that in this classroom there is not the next Albert Einstein?”
But when students walk into a building that is “decrepit,” Upegui said, the message they receive is unmistakable: “The message is we don’t care about them.”
“Certainly, a new building would indicate that the state cares, that the state understands the potential that is here,” Upegui said. “The students in Central Falls are the most underdeveloped natural resource the state has. This is an investment in not just them individually but collectively as a society.”