standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — State Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Christine Lopes-Metcalfe, chief executive officer of the state Department of Education's School Building Authority, fielded questions from the School Committee and the Town Council Wednesday during a joint meeting focused on the proposed school building project that is set to go before Westerly's voters in October.

Magaziner and Lopes-Metcalfe delivered an overview and history of the state's Necessity of School Construction process before taking questions. Voters will be asked on Oct. 10 to decide on the issuance of bonds up to $71.4 million, but only $65.9 million of the bond proceeds would fund the total project cost of $75.2 million. The state has agreed to reimburse at least 35% of eligible parts of the project, which would amount to $29.5 million in reimbursement, and up to 50% of eligible costs, which would amount to $45.8 million. At the 35% percent reimbursement rate the town's taxpayers would pay an estimated $76,852,459, when interest estimates are factored in.

Town Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. asked whether residents could confidently expect the 35% reimbursement rate even under extreme circumstances. Magaziner said the state General Assembly set 35% as a base rate several years ago and has shown no indication of wavering from it. When the state imposed a moratorium on funding for school building projects from 2011 to 2015 it continued to reimburse projects that had been approved before the moratorium, Magaziner said.

"While it is subject to annual appropriation by the General Assembly, I think it is highly unlikely that you  would get less than 35 percent," Magaziner said.

When pressed by Councilor William Aiello, Magaziner acknowledged that the town is ultimately responsible for paying back funds borrowed through bonding if the state became unable to follow through on its promised reimbursement.

Councilor Suzanne Giorno asked whether the town could expect reimbursement if a particular portion of the approved project cannot be accomplished. Lopes-Metcalf initially answered that the 35% reimbursement would remain in place as long as at least 50 percent of the approved project was completed.

But when Councilor Sharon Ahern took the line of questioning a step further and asked whether the 35% rate would remain if circumstances evolved whereby a new State Street School building could not be constructed, Lopes-Metcalf said she would get an answer to the question today.

"This is not a question we've encountered anywhere else," Magaziner said.

According to Magaziner, about 20 school districts in the state are currently pursuing school building projects under the Necessity of School Construction process.

Aiello also asked whether renovations to an additional building not currently in the plans could be substituted for the new State Street School building if the State Street project proved not to be viable.

Any currently unapproved work that exceeds $500,000 in value would have to be part of a new application to the School Building Authority, said Lopes-Metcalfe. The application and approval process would take more than one year, she said.

Aiello has often advocated using the Bradford School building, which the School Committee took off line following the end of the 2016-17 school year and after voters in 2016 rejected a $38.5 million project that would have closed State Street School and renovated the other elementary schools, including the one in Bradford.

In addition to knocking down the current State Street School building and constructing a new one, the current plans call for renovation and additions to Dunn's Corners Elementary School, renovations and upgrades to Springbrook Elementary School, a new heating and ventilation system at Westerly High School and other districtwide safety and security, environmental control and technology improvements.

Twenty-four communities applied to the School Building Authority for funding this round, and Westerly's project was one of six to be approved. The state's reimbursement will be funded through the $250 million school construction bond approved by state voters in November.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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