standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council continued its analysis of the proposed school building project Monday as it moves closer to a decision on whether to send the project to referendum.

The School Committee and its building subcommittee have a proposed a $71.4 million project that would include building a new State Street School and tearing down the existing building that was constructed in 1955, renovating the Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools and both buildings at Westerly High School, and addressing other district-wide improvements. Half the project is expected to reimbursed by the state, which would bring the cost to the taxpayers to about $56.7 million after factoring interest.

The subcommittee, responding to concerns raised by the Town Council, has also put forth three lower cost options of $57 million, $55.2 million, and $50.7 million, but Council President Christopher Duhamel said Monday that he was not sure the lower cost alternatives could be considered without prior approval from the School Committee.

The council's review included a presentation by municipal Finance Director Dyann Baker, who studied the impact of the project and two other lower cost alternatives. Because the reimbursement rate offered by the state would be reduced as the project is compressed, the overall effect of lowering the cost down from $71.4 million would not translate to a very substantial savings for taxpayers.

"There's not a lot of difference between these three scenarios," Duhamel said.

Councilor Caswelll Cooke Jr. acknowledged the views of critics of the plan, who have questioned the wisdom of building a new school or who supported the $38.5 million project that voters rejected in 2016, but also noted that the overall cost differential of the three options studied by Baker is about $700,000.

"That's the part that makes you have to stop and think and say put the whole amount out there on the ballot and let the people decide," Cooke said.

Councilor Brian McCuin offered his own plan: a $38.4 million project that would accomplish the maintenance aspects of the plan developed by the building subcommittee, but would eliminate a new State Street School. McCuin also proposed borrowing $1.7 million to accomplish some of the projects recommended in the municipal recreation facilities master plan.

After the school maintenance projects were accomplished the town could then consider constructing a new school, McCuin said.

Councilor Karen Cioffi asked for more time for the council to discuss the projects under consideration, noting a special meeting might have to be scheduled.

Duhamel has said he hoped the council would take a vote on whether to send the project ahead for a referendum on May 20, but Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said conversations he had with Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr., who is also a state senator, indicated the council could push its vote off to its June 3 meeting and still meet timelines to ensure a referendum could be conducted.

Christine Cooke, co-chair woman of the school building subcommittee and a member of the School Committee, said she was not sure the state Department of Education would reimburse McCuin's plan because the department is focused on "holistic" projects. Additionally, she said the plan would fall short of critical goals.

"It doesn't align with the educational vision for the community. That's a maintenance plan, not a plan to address the district facilities for the students," Cooke said.

Overall, Cooke said, she was pleased by the council's discussion.

"The council is still struggling to understand the project but they seem to be getting to a closer understanding in terms of how the reimbursement works and the timing of that. I think giving it some more time hopefully they will come to a deeper understanding of the project and the money that could be left on the table," Cooke said.

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