051719 WES Rally for school building 91.JPG

Former Town council member Jean Gagnier addresses the small group of supporters of the proposed $71.4 million school building project who rallied at Town Hall on Monday, May 20, 2019, to ask Town Council to approve a resolution that would send the project forward for a vote by taxpayers at a referendum. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — On the day it reaffirmed its support of a $71.4 million school building project, the School Committee learned that lower-cost options would likely not be accepted by the state Department of Education.

The School Committee voted 6-1 Monday to reaffirm its support of the project which, the state has said, would qualify for up to a 52.5 percent reimbursement rate, and to ask the Town Council to move the project forward for a final yes or no from the town’s voters at a referendum that would be scheduled for the fall.

The project was also the basis for a rally attended by about 30 people on the steps of Town Hall Monday afternoon just before the Town Council’s meeting at 6 p.m. Most of those in attendance at the rally went inside to support speakers who asked the council to send the project to the voters. The council also heard from residents who are opposed to the project.

School Committee members Diane Chiaradio, Christine Piezzo, Rebecca Greene, Christine Cooke, Mary Adams and Tim Killam voted in favor of supporting the project; committee member Marianne Nardone cast the lone vote of dissent. The School Committee had previously voted to support the project in January when it sent the project along for Stage 2 review by the state Education Department. The Town Council also signed off on moving the project to the Stage 2 review.

The state Education Department’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed last week that the Westerly School District could spend up to $74 million, which includes a five-year capital-improvement plan, and would qualify for reimbursement by the state of up to 52.5 percent of the cost as long as the project, once completed, meets all of the state incentive guidelines it was designed to meet.

In March, the School Committee’s Building Subcommittee signed off on three lower-cost options after hearing that several members of the Town Council were concerned about the cost of the $71.4 million project. The Town Council in recent week has been studying the $71.4 million project, the three lower-cost options and an additional lower-cost project proposed by Town Council member Brian McCuin.

The project would see a new State Street School constructed and improvements and renovations to all of the district’s other schools.

The building subcommittee had been told by representatives of Robinson, Green, Beretta Corp., the Providence-based architectural firm working with the subcommittee, that the lower-cost options would be considered by the state and would qualify for reimbursement, but an email from Joseph da Silva, school construction coordinator for the state Education Department’s School Building Authority, to William Nardone, the Westerly School Committee’s lawyer, cast doubt on whether the state will view the lower-cost projects as viable options.

“While it is difficult to answer hypothetical scenarios without further information, it is worth mentioning that any deviations from the Council’s approval — which will be memorialized in the Memorandum of Agreement (forthcoming) — may result in the loss of eligibility of state aid,” da Silva wrote in a message sent Monday afternoon.

da Silva went on to say that choosing one of the low-cost options would likely require the Westerly School District to restart the school construction process, which took nearly two years for the current project. Nardone interpreted da Silva’s message as being “clear that any deviation from the plan would result in a change and a possibility and probability of having to go back to RIDE and start over again.”

Any plan that does not include building a new school would require starting the process again “because that’s the basis of the entire plan, construction of the elementary school,” Nardone said.

Chiaradio Bowdy, the School Committee’s chairwoman said the e-mail from daSilva confirmed something the committee was already aware of. “It comes down to what we have known all along. The Town Council votes yes or no. There shouldn’t have been all of this other stuff,” Chiaradio Bowdy said.

Piezzo noted that just $700,000 separated the $71.4 million project and the lowest-priced option approved by the building subcommittee. She also asked if the School Committee would have any recourse if the Town Council voted not to send the project along for a vote by residents.

Nardone replied by saying making a legal case to appeal the Town Council’s decision would be difficult and would face “minimal if any chance of success.”

“I hope they listen to their constituents who they were put into office to represent,” Piezzo said.

Sandy Allen, a resident since 1985 who attended the rally, said he was struck by the pleas of the women and mothers in the community.

“I pay attention to what the parents, especially the mothers, have been saying about the importance of this project for the future of the town and their children,” Allen said.

Lori Wycall, who organized the rally, said residents, through their participation in community forums, helped craft the $71.4 million project.

“That’s why the Town Council shouldn’t make the decision. It should go to the taxpayers and the voters,” said Wycall, whose two children attend Westerly Middle School.

The Town Council heard from residents on both sides. Former Town Council President Edward Morrone urged the council to stop the project, saying the school district should make better use of existing assets, including Babcock Hall at Westerly High School and the former Bradford School building, which the School Committee turned over to the town earlier this year. The proposed project, Morrone said, would have a “dire fiscal impact.”

“Just because we can it does not dictate we should plunge our community into generational debt,” Morrone said.

Deb Pendola, former Bradford School principal, said the State Street School location is inadequate for a new school that will have a larger student population.

Former Town Councilor Jean Gagnier spoke in favor of the project, saying the town risked losing significant reimbursement for work that would have to be done eventually. Former Town Councilor Philip Overton agreed.

“We should not let this slip out of our hands. The voters have a right to make a decision,” Overton said.

The Town Council is scheduled to discuss the project during a special meeting tonight at 6 in the Municipal Courtroom at Town Hall. The council could vote on whether to send the project to a referendum or could wait and vote in early June.

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