WOOD RIVER JCT. — A new committee is studying the eight schools in the Chariho Regional School District to determine which improvements and upgrades the buildings need and whether the district’s children might be better served by fewer, newer schools.
The Necessity for School Construction Committee, which met virtually, most recently on June 25, includes Chariho administrators, School Committee members and a resident of Hopkinton, representing the community at large.
School Committee Chairman Ryan Callahan explained that the district had applied to the Rhode Island Department of Education for funding for capital improvement projects and that the committee had been formed to assess the needs of the district and the priorities of the community and to submit a plan to RIDE. The application is now in the second phase of the process.
“We had to put forth a plan and that plan involved exploring what capital projects and really setting out your capital needs, understanding what those capital needs are, and the Phase II is really structuring how to address those capital needs,” he said.
The district is working with RGB Architects of Providence, which is assessing school buildings, managing the community consultation process and meeting with RIDE to determine the requirements of the application process. The state would reimburse the district for most of the cost of the capital improvements.
“We have an amount of capital reimbursement already,” Callahan said. “What the state is doing is incentivizing additional capital dollars, capital reimbursement, and if those dollars go toward projects that fit what the purpose of the incentive is.”
Topping RIDE’s list of capital projects are those that improve school safety and also school consolidation projects in which older schools are closed and replaced with fewer, newer buildings.
“You can take your nominal capital reimbursement, which I believe is either 61 or 63%, and that could be increased to almost 75%,” Callahan said. “It’s substantial, depending on the type of capital project it is.”
Using a digital meeting platform, RGB reached out to small groups with diverse backgrounds within the Chariho community. Four focus groups of no more than 20 people per group were formed to consider the district’s needs in several areas: learning environments, special programs, leadership group and safety and security.
Callahan said the focus groups have been meeting for about two months.
“It’s a wide range of individuals, parents, community leaders, faculty, students, and the goal is to establish a broad perspective of what’s needed in the existing infrastructure,” he said. “What gaps do we currently have? What educational needs are not being met, and looking at how we can address that or integrate that into a capital plan.”
After consulting with more than 200 people, RGB came up with three options for the configuration of Chariho schools.
The first option preserves the status quo. No buildings would be closed, no additions would be made and there would be no new school buildings. The existing buildings would all undergo safety upgrades.
The second option calls for the reduction of the district’s elementary schools from four to three, closing Ashaway Elementary School.
The RGB report states that this option “provides for more resources to be put into Charlestown Elementary, Richmond Elementary and Hope Valley Elementary School, thus creating three more-robust elementary schools that can approximate some level of next-generation improvements.”
RGB also notes that closing Ashaway Elementary School would eliminate 35,570 square feet of building space, lowering the district's operating expenses and improving efficiency.
The third and final option would involve the consolidation of all four elementary schools into a single, new school, which would be built on the Chariho campus.
The proposals are certain to prompt considerable public discussion, and Callahan said the public consultation process was only just beginning.
“This is going to take time, to really get a good sense of where the public’s head and heart is at on this,” he said. “Part of this process is just to identify capital needs, and then the second part is to understand our demographic. We had a demographer look at our three towns and give us projections of growth rates and what our projected needs are going to be over the next decade, meaning, what is our infrastructure and who is going to need to be serviced by our educational system.”
Once the infrastructure needs and demographics have been determined, the committee will present several options to the community.
“We’re not just looking at the cost of the option, although that’s a huge component of it, we’re looking at what does that do for our community,” Callahan said. “Then the next phase is really engaging the community on what those options are so that they can provide feedback, but also give us their frank and honest opinion of whether or not that’s something that they need or if there’s an unidentified gap that they want to point out …. I expect that over the next couple of months we’ll be having a lot of public discussion about it.”
Hopkinton resident Ron Bryant, a member of the Necessity of School Construction committee, said he would have preferred to see broader community discussions, but COVID-19 had made large in-person meetings impossible.
“It’s challenging because of COVID,” he said. “It would be nice if we could have 100 people in an auditorium.”
Bryant, who has an engineering background, said he had readily agreed to serve on the committee.
“I was approached,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to give back to the town.”