standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — Leaders of the School Building Committee are questioning the Town Council's approach to the school district's proposed $71.4 million elementary redesign project.

At their meeting on Tuesday, co-chairs Christine Cooke and Gina Fuller asked why former finance board chairman Richard Smith was asked or allowed to address the council during a presentation on the project by the town's financial adviser and both the municipal and school finance directors. Smith asked the council on Monday to carefully study the town's ability to afford the project.

Cooke said she had received emails and texts from residents asking why Smith was allowed to speak when he did.

"There were questions concerning in what capacity Mr. Smith was there and some concern that he wasn't speaking during public comment because he is a private citizen, and he was invited to the dais along with our professionals," Cooke said.

"Not that there's any concern with him, because he's a very well-respected elder statesmen in our community, but it did give people pause," she said.

Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said he asked Smith to speak to the council, adding that Kenneth Swain, the most senior member of the Board of Finance, was not available.

"Dick had been on the finance board for quite some time ... his input was needed. He had talked to me about the project and I wanted the council to hear from him. It wasn't meant to jeopardize anything, just to frame the issue," Duhamel said.

While she said Smith had made "some valid points," Fuller said he "spoke in a vacum" and "hijacked" the presentation.

"It was completely inappropriate and disappointing to see that happen to our staff," Fuller said of Smith's appearance.

Fuller also questioned the town's recent history of no tax increases, or slight increases. She said Smith was partially responsible.   "Now it's catching up to us, so I'm not quite sure the old way of thinking is the way we need to be thinking right now," she said.

Smith, on Wednesday, confirmed that he had appeared before the council because Duhamel had asked him to. "I was invited by the council to participate in the discussion. I believe it was because of my long tenure as chairman of the finance board and, more particularly, my knowledge of both the town and school budgets," he said.

Smith also noted that he served on the board when the town borrowed money through bonds for other school construction projects.

The building committee asked Barbara Perino, the school district's director of finance and operations, to provide figures on how reducing the project by $15 million would affect the impact of the project on taxpayers. Members of the Town Council have suggested that the project could be cut by that amount if the project's work that is earmarked for Westerly High School is not included.

Justin Hopkins, an architect and member of the building committe, said, "My guess is that it's not going to be that big of a margin ... my point being if we reduce the scope of this project we may only be saving the average tax payer $10 or $15 annually."

Tracey Donnelly, of the The Robinson Green Beretta Corporation, project architect, said that removing $15 million of the work would not affect the reimbursement rate assigned by the state Department of Education. Officials anticipate at least a 35 percent reimbursement rate but have said they believe a 50 percent rate is more likely.

The committee also asked Donnelly to prepare cash flow projections to show how expenditures would tie in with the rate of construction. Under state guidelines the project is to be completed in five years from the time an agreement between the state and the town is struck.

The committee also reviewed project drawings developed by Joe Casali Engineering Inc., a Warwick-based civil engineering firm. One of the drawings would require the committee to decide on a new configuration for bus parking at State Street School.

The committee is working to complete a Stage 2 application to the state Department of Education by Feb. 15, the due date. The Town Council must endorse the filing before it is submitted. The School Committee, voting 5-1, approved the application last month.

Plans call for a $41.9 million new State Street School, $10.2 million in renovations, reconfiguration and additions to Dunn's Corners School, and $3.48 million in renovations, reconfiguration and additions to Springbrook School. The project also calls for $206,587 to prepare the Tower Street School Community Center for use as temporary quarters for students during construction, as well as $4.2 million in improvements at Westerly High School's Babcock Hall and $9.3 million in improvements to Ward Hall. An additional $1.9 million in general districtwide improvements would also be carried out.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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