WOOD RIVER JCT. — Members of the Chariho School Committee agreed at Tuesday’s meeting to poll residents of Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton on whether to consolidate elementary schools into a single building, close one elementary school, or leave things the way they are.
The Necessity for School Construction Subcommittee has narrowed the options to three. The first, Option A, would close all four elementary schools and consolidate grades K through 5 in a single, new school which would be built near the existing Chariho campus.
Option B would close Hope Valley Elementary School and upgrade Ashaway, Charlestown and Richmond schools. Option C would keep the current elementary schools’ configuration, maintaining and improving all four buildings.
The Rhode Island Department of Education, under its “newer and fewer” school buildings initiative, offers significant incentives to districts who opt for new, more efficient school buildings.
Ryan Callahan, of Richmond, provided some background on the state program.
“Rather than continue to reimburse for standard capital projects, they would incentivize districts to take a look, or invest in, newer and fewer buildings,” he said.
Working with RGB architects of Providence, the Necessity for School Construction Subcommitee explored the options for the district’s eight schools, looking at existing infrastructure and capital project needs.
Engineering reports concluded that the district would need to spend about $60 million to maintain and improve its existing buildings. The newest of the four elementary schools, Ashaway elementary, is 53 years old, and all of the district’s eight schools require upgrades.
“Those eight buildings, they have capital needs that are rapidly approaching the $60 million mark,” Callahan said. “Approximately $26 million of that is allocated to the four elementary schools, so we started to look at how we can invest in our community in a fiscally responsible way that allowed us to take advantage of these incentivized programs.”
The school district would be reimbursed for at least 65% of the cost of a single, new elementary school, but Callahan noted that the reimbursement could be as high as 85%, leaving the towns to pay about $23 million.
RGB architect Tracey Andrew told the committee that demographic studies commissioned as part of the initial district needs assessment showed total enrollment will remain about the same in the coming years.
Most committee members favored Option A, which would entail the construction of a new, two- or three-story elementary school of approximately 200,000 square feet that would accommodate 600 children. Grade five, which is currently at the middle school, would be taught at the new elementary school.
Hopkinton has historically resisted all suggestions of closing Hope Valley school, one of two elementary schools in the town. Hopkinton School Committee member Catherine Giusti said a single elementary school would save the district and the towns money in the long run.
“You can’t tell me on the one hand that you do not want to see your taxes raised, but keep the same infrastructure that keeps raising your taxes,” she said.
Committee member Rev. David Stall, also of Hopkinton, pointed out that the demographics of the Chariho towns were changing and opinions on school consolidation might have changed as well.
“I know that a lot of the voters are the same voters that have seen many proposals over the years, but there has been turnover, and the people in the district, the voters, have changed, so I think it’s worth kind of reassessing where is the current community at, and it may have changed in the last 10 years,” he said. “I also think sometimes, as a committee, we need to be the ones who are taking a bolder, bigger step, coming up with ideas that are different from what they’ve heard before.”
Richmond parent and PTO President Robin Woodmansee agreed that the Chariho towns might now be receptive to consolidation.
“The community has really changed in its views of our Chariho school system,” she said. “I’ve also heard a lot of committee members say ‘A is probably the best option’ and I would just like everyone to kind of reflect on that. If ‘A’ is truly the best option for our community, then you know, I think we should be putting forth what we feel is best.”
Committee member Gary Liguori of Richmond said the third option, which would involve simply maintaining existing buildings, would prove to be costly.
“What’s the maintenance cost we know we’re going to incur with buildings that average 57 years old,” he said. “… In my opinion, I add up to the same equation that doing nothing, or option C, is fiscally unsound.”
Hopkinton member George Abbott said he understood that there was a trend away from large schools and back to neighborhood schools.
“I was under the impression that national trends are leaning towards neighborhood schools and that kids generally do better in neighborhood schools as opposed to factory schools, massive buildings and things of that nature,” he said.
Chariho superintendent Gina Picard said students would be learning in smaller groups within a larger school.
“What they’ve done with larger schools that have over 1,000 students is create environments where they don’t look large but they’re very much driven by small pods, if you will,” she said.
The committee must act before the state incentive expires in December 2022.
Members agreed to take the first step of polling residents on their preferences and then holding a series community meetings to discuss the three options.