standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — Appointed and elected education officials are offering mixed reviews of Town Councilor Brian McCuin's call for a new school building committee appointed by both the Town Council and the School Committee.

McCuin, speaking during the citizens comments portion of the Town Council's meeting on Monday, proposed establishing the new committee as a means to move forward after voters on Oct. 10 again rejected a school bond measure.

"I think we should convene another building committee. I think it should be appointed equally by the Town Council and the School Committee and I think we can see in the past what happened. I think we should all work together and come up with a plan that both sides can agree on," McCuin said.

The new committee, McCuin said, should include residents who both supported and opposed the latest project. It should continue to work with RGB Architects of Providence, the firm that helped the current School Building Subcommittee develop the latest proposal, and the firm's work should be retained and used as new plans are developed, he said. 

"We have to do something for the schools. I don't think anyone is in denial about the condition of the schools. We have to do something and I'm hoping we can get a committee together like we did on the 2020, the 2020 building committee lasted a long time and we all worked together and we all moved it forward," McCuin said.

McCuin was referring to the Vision 2020 group that started as a task force appointed by the School Committee in 2001 to assess the school district's needs and develop a comprehensive master plan. Following development of the master plan, a Vision 2020 Building Subcommittee was appointed by the School Committee and the Town Council to oversee implementation of the plan. The task force, which ended its work in 2009, presided over development of the plans and construction of Westerly Middle School and creation of a campus at Westerly High School. A different building subcommittee oversaw renovations that followed later at Westerly High School.

McCuin's idea runs afoul of current state regulations. In 2007 the state General Assembly mandated that the state Department of Education revise its review process and develop school construction rules and the introduction of a new "Necessity of School Construction Application Process” under which Rhode Island school districts could receive approval and state funding.

On Tuesday, Christine Cooke, co-chairwoman of the current building subcommittee, said that the state education department's School Building Authority "sets clear guidelines on how building committees must be formed for school building projects. The School Committee must appoint a minimum of eight members." Cooke is a member of the School Committee.

The regulations specify the composition of the building committee: It is to consist of the local superintendent of schools; at least one member of the school committee; the local official responsible for building maintenance; a representative of the office or body authorized by law to construct school buildings in the municipality; a school principal; a member who has knowledge of the educational mission and function of school facilities; a local budget official or member of the local finance committee; and at least one member of the community with architectural, engineering and/or construction experience. 

Cooke noted that the current building committee included, at times, the current and former town managers, the current Town Council president, the town and school district's finance director, the district's director of facilities, a current member and the recent past chair of the town's Planning Board, a professional architect, a former and current School Committee member, two elementary school principals and a seasoned educator who has worked in every school building within the district. Other nonvoting members, including the assistant superintendent of schools, also participated.

"From the start, the current building committee has been made up of a hardworking, dedicated and solid team of extraordinary members of our community, all who brought a range of experience and expertise," Cooke said.

After an elaborate planning process, the committee proposed to borrow up to $71.4 million for a project that would have resulted in a new State Street Elementary School, and renovations and additions to the district's two other elementary schools, the middle school, and high school. The state ws expected to reimburse 35% to 50% of the cost of the borrowing and interest.

The defeat of the proposal was the second in three year: In 2016, voters rejected a proposal that would have closed State Street School and renovated three other elementary schools.

"Our committee developed a solid, well-vetted plan, and for reasons political, personal or otherwise, was unable to garner the full support of the Town Council and School Committee," Cooke said. "This was also the case with the school redesign renovation project that was rejected by voters in 2016 which did not have the full support of either body. However, the building committee formed for that project played a far less active role than did the current building committee."

The School Committee will meeting tonight at 6 at Town Hall and is expected to discuss hiring a firm to conduct a survey of voters to determine why they either supported or rejected the most recent building proposal.

More specifically, officials hope to learn whether voters were concerned with the cost of the project or whether they disliked the educational framework. The project would have resulted in a reconfiguration of the elementary schools. State Street School would have become an upper elementary school for students in Grade 3-5, and the two other elementary schools would have been used for the pre-K to Grade 2 population.

"At our meeting tomorrow night, the School Committee will be discussing and potentially voting on going out to bid for a professional post-bond polling/community data collection service. I feel that this step is imperative to ensuring that whatever is put before the voters next will be supported by a majority of the community. This community cannot afford to fail to address the needs of our schools and our students a third time," Cooke said.

School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiradio Bowdy on Tuesday questioned the council's timing in discussing the school building project and said she previously spoke with Town Council President Christopher Duhamel about the next steps.

"The fact that the Town Council discussed work that falls completely under the School Committee’s purview and with such timing is very disturbing. As discussed with Town Council President Duhamel late last week, the School Committee will engage the Town Council in our discussions and processes, as defined by state law, as soon as is practicable. We know we will need a team effort going forth and appreciate the appropriate support of the Town Council. As part of that team effort roles and responsibilities, as defined by state law, obviously need to be clarified from the onset," Chiaradio Bowdy said.

Duhamel, during the Town Council meeting on Monday, said he had spoken with Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr., who informed him that the council can offer support but "we cannot drive the bus, we can be on the bus, but the driver has to be the School Committee."

Duhamel, who served on the Vision 2020 Building Committee, said the group worked as a partnership of the Town Council and the School Committee. "I didn't see that in the 2016 bond and I didn't see it in the 2019 bond. I think that might be one of the reasons it failed," he said.

McCuin said that while the School Committee might have the legal authority to appoint building committees it should listen to the Town Council's suggestions.

Councilor Karen Cioffi said a number of residents approached her and other members of the council to express their willingness to help if the project was voted down.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, on Tuesday, said he agreed with some of McCuin's comments.

"When it comes to the composition of the building committee my understanding is that it's the purview of the School Committee and I would expect the School Committee to feel strongly about that, but I absolutely agree with Mr. McCuin that these two bodies working in conjunction with my office to improve the conditions of the district's schools can only help," Garceau said.

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