WESTERLY — Town Council members focused mainly on the need for regular maintenance Monday following a presentation of the proposed $71.4 million school building project by the School Building Committee.
School officials are hopeful that as much as half of the project cost would be reimbursed by the state Department of Education. If that happens, the direct cost to the town's taxpayers would be $35,711,423, according to the committee's current projections and estimates.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau walked the council through the process used by the building committee that resulted in plans 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 projects also calls for $206,587 to prepare 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 at the high school's Ward Hall. An additional $1.9 million in general districtwide improvements would also be made.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said he supported the overall project but wondered why the high school needs so much so soon after renovations were completed at the school in 2010. Garceau explained the new work needed at the high school was identified in a report issued by Jacobs Engineering for RIDE and the state School Building Authority.
Justin Hopkins, an architect and member of the building committee, said that one of the committee's first decisions was to move fifth-grade students out of Westerly Middle School and into the new State Street School, which would house all of the district's Grade 3-5 students. He also noted that the proposed new State School building would encompass just under 92,000 square feet on two floors but represent just a slight increase in the overall footprint as compared to the current school's layout.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno stressed the need for the School Committee and district officials to commit to budgeting for maintenance of district buildings and facilities. Garceau said the district currently budgets 1.9 percent of its overall operations budget on maintenance and expects the percentage to be close to 3 percent in fiscal year 2020. State law requires school districts throughout the state to reach the 3 percent mark by 2023.
Councilor William Aiello, an opponent of the school district's decision to close the Bradford School in 2017, questioned aspects of the proposed new State Street School, including whether RIDE would approve of a new building in an area where aircraft associated with Westerly State Airport fly low on approaches. Garceau said he was not aware of RIDE raising concerns about the altitude of aircraft flying over the school.
"If you're talking about building a brand new school ... now that we are aware of the safety concern, are we going to proceed with it?" Aiello said.
Aiello also asked whether the project would be as expensive if the school district had maintained its buildings. Council President Christopher Duhamel eventually interrupted Aiello, saying the goal of the presentation was to provide information to the council.
"We want to have an understanding before we blow it up," Duhamel said.
Duhamel asked the School Building Committee to consider meeting with the Finance Board to get a sense for the town's ability to afford the project and take on new debt. Garceau said the committee would be happy to meet with additional town officials.
During the presentation Garceau noted that even if the project is only reimbursed at a 39 percent rate, the town would remain under the Town Council's 10 percent of the town budget debt policy. He also said that the town's financial advisor has said the town could take the additional debt on and that the additional debt is not anticipated to hurt the town's bond rating.
A Stage 2 application for the project is due to RIDE by Feb. 15. The application must be approved by both the School Committee and the Town Council before it is submitted. If the project is approved by RIDE, the borrowing would require approval by voters at a referendum, currently envisioned for November.