WESTERLY — Officials and residents on both sides of the school building project that voters rejected Thursday are offering different ideas on what the path forward should look like.
At its most basic level, the project rejected on a 2,180-1,726 vote was based on a belief that the town's elementary schools needed to be addressed and improved. The same impetus drove the project that voters rejected in 2016.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, who supported the most recently proposed project, on Friday called for a survey of voters to see what they were thinking when they filled in the "reject" oval on their ballots. "I think we need to gauge why it failed. Was it about the money or was it about the educational side? I think that's important for us to know and for any future subcommittees — to try to get to the bottom of that," he said.
The question put to voters Thursday asked for approval of up to $71.4 million in borrowing with state reimbursement of at least 35% to help pay for tearing down the existing State Street Elementary School and building a new on the site; renovating and slightly expanding Dunn's Corners Elementary School; and renovating Springbrook School. Westerly Middle School and the two halls at Westerly High School would have been improved as well.
The project came with a pledge of at least 35% reimbursement of both the principal and interest by the Rhode Island School Building Authority and the possibility of up to 50% reimbursement if the project met certain state-set incentive thresholds that it was designed to meet.
A $38.5 million elementary school redesign plan that called for renovating the Bradford, Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools and eventually closing State Street School was rejected by voters in 2016. Garceau noted the two rejections in three years.
"We need to know what the voters will support," he said.
From an education perspective, the latest plan called for moving the town's fifth grade students out of Westerly Middle School and into State Street School, which would have been transformed into an upper elementary school for Grades 3-5. Dunn's Corners School and Springbrook School would have been used as early learning centers for the Pre-K to Grade 2 population. Garceau said the project would have improved equity of access to high quality school buildings throughout the district, and positioned students and teachers for success and achievement.
Garceau, who started his position in July 2017, when the project that was rejected on Thursday was already under development, said Thursday's vote cast a bit of a pall in the district's schools Friday. He said the atmosphere was "down a little bit. People are disappointed and understandably so. I think the weekend off will do them good."
Christine Cooke, a member of the School Committee and co-chairwoman of the Building Subcommittee that worked on the failed project from start to finish, echoed Garceau's call for a survey when asked to comment on Friday.
"The first step the School Committee should take is to commission a professional poll of those who voted yesterday to determine why they supported or didn’t support the plan so that we can apply that feedback to any future plans. Was it the cost or was it another factor? This is a crucial step that must be taken before we can move forward," Cooke said.
Cooke said the gulf between voters who said yes and those who said no was not extremely wide. "Although we are certainly disappointed that the plan did not pass, there were 44% of the voters who did support the plan. It's important that we try and understand why people voted the way they did so that we can make sure any future plan we put forward is supported by a majority of voters," she said.
Supporters of the project and opponents campaigned strenuously in the weeks leading up to the vote. Cooke questioned whether it was a fair contest.
"The building committee and several School Committee members worked very hard for the weeks and months leading up to the vote to try and counter the misinformation being perpetuated throughout the community about the plan and the process in general. We felt that it was so important that voters were accurately informed ... before stepping into the voting booth yesterday," Cooke said.
Opponents of the plan offered a post-referendum approach that differed significantly from the one suggested by Garceau and Cooke.
Jennifer Brinton, who chaired the Schools Redesign Advisory Committee in 2014, said, "Take 90% of the application, that baseline work, and based on that complete the remaining 10% and develop a project based on the assets we have."
Brinton's committee recommended closing State Street School and renovating Bradford School, Dunn's Corners School and Springbrook School, and making the most of the space at Westerly Middle School and the Ward and Babcock buildings on Westerly High School's campus. The Tower Street School Community Center would not have been used as a school. A consultant hired by the School Committee came up with different options, which were eventually molded into the project that voters rejected in 2016.
On Friday Brinton reiterated her belief that in an era of declining student enrollment it does not make sense to construct a new school building. "I'm sure if you poll the voters you'll find it wasn't the renovation of Springbrook or Dunn's Corners that was a problem, it was the new build," she said.
Edward Morrone, former Town Council president, was also a vocal opponent of the project. He worked with a loosely organized group called People for Responsible Planning.
"I'm delighted with the outcome and I am encouraged by the margin...the people were asked to speak and they did," Morrone said. "They don't want to be told what they want. They want to be asked."
Morrone said the plan would have "put a generation in debt needlessly" when all that is needed is better use of the town's existing buildings.
Banter about the project on social media was, at times, acerbic and demeaning. Above all else, Brinton said, she hopes for a civil discourse in the future. "The tone and tenor, calling people morons and rejects. That was painful — that people sank to that level. That was worse than the project passing or failing. I hope that changes," she said.