WESTERLY — The proposed school building project, developed over the course of years, and the object of intense scrutiny in recent weeks and months, will be the first of four questions on the ballot during a special referendum scheduled for Thursday.
Voters will be asked to approve the issuance of bonds not to exceed $71.4 million for the project, which would result in a new upper elementary school for the town's Grades 3-5 students at the site of the current State Street Elementary School, plus additions and renovations to Dunn's Corners Elementary School, and renovations to Springbrook Elementary, Westerly Middle and Westerly High schools.
Three proposed changes to the Town Charter will also be on the ballot. The charter questions do not involve the school building project.
The School Committee appointed a Building Subcommittee after voters rejected a different school building project in November 2016. The subcommittee conducted a survey with the hope of understanding why the earlier project failed and eventually hired an educational planner and an architectural firm to help develop a new proposal. After focus groups and community forums that funneled the input of students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders, the architects developed conceptual plans that gave the Building Subcommittee four options.
The subcommittee unanimously endorsed the plan that will go before the voters on Thursday. Under the plan, Grade 5 would be moved out of Westerly Middle School and into the new upper elementary school. Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools would become early learning centers for children in pre-kindergarten to Grade 2. Ward and Babcock Halls at Westerly High School would receive heating and cooling upgrades, electrical work and security improvements. Westerly Middle School would receive work to stop water intrusion and other mechanical and safety upgrades.
The plans also include the use of about $206,500 for work at Tower Street School Community Center to prepare the facility for use as a school while the new State Street Elementary School is under construction.
The proposed use of the bond funds breaks down as follows: $37,293,819 for the new State Street Elementary School; $12,230,231 for Dunn's Corners Elementary School; $8,879,375 for work at Westerly High School's Ward Hall, $3,874,846 for the high school's Babcock Hall; $7,229,895 for Springbrook Elementary School; and $1.9 million in districtwide improvements. An additional $3.8 million of work would be performed under the school district's five-year capital improvement plan.
The Rhode Island School Building Authority has agreed to reimburse at least 35% of the cost of the $71.4 million portion of the project and interest (estimated at $42.4 million at a 4% rate) and up to 50% of the total cost and interest as long as the project meets all of the goals it was designed to meet. The cost of the bond over 25 years is estimated to be $3,818 for every $250,000 of assessed value or about $153 per year for 25 years.
Gina Fuller, co-chairwoman of the Building Subcommittee, on Tuesday noted that the proposed project fits within the Town Council's debt policy and that the town's financial adviser stated that the town has the capacity to take on the new debt.
"So really the only question for the taxpayer is — is this plan affordable at an increase of $153 on an average property and do you think it's worth it at that price," Fuller said.
The new grade configuration that would result from a positive vote on the project will position the town's children for success, Fuller said. "The groupings under the early learning centers model is the key to building a foundation that students need to be successful throughout their education," she said.
Teachers at the two pre-K to Grade 2 schools will focus, Fuller said, on ensuring that students develop proper literacy and numeracy skills by the time they move to the upper elementary school on State Street. The new State Street School will be laid out to provide space for "the type of hands-on learning that is critical to that age group," Fuller said.
The first of the three charter revision questions asks voters to consider abolishing term limits for members of the Town Council. The second charter question would move the date of submission for the proposed municipal budget from the town manager to the finance board to the third Monday in March from the current requirement of the the third Monday in February. The third question asks voters to consider changing the date for submission of the proposed education budget by the superintendent of schools to the municipal finance director from no later than the first Monday in February to the first Monday in March.
Precinct 3601, which normally votes at Bradford Citizens Club, 3603, which normally votes at State Street Elementary School, 3604, which normally votes at the Venice Restaurant, and 3605, which normally votes at Westerly Middle School Cafeteria, will all vote at Venice Restaurant.
Precinct 3602, which normally votes at Westerly High School, 3606, which normally votes at the Springbrook Elementary School Gym, and 3607, which normally votes at Faith Bible Chapel, 115 Ashaway Road, will vote at Faith Bible Chapel.
The two polling places will be open Thursday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Voters who cannot make it to their designated polling place can fill out emergency mail ballots at Town Hall today from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.