standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — With question of whether its proposed project would go to the voters settled, the School Committee's Building Subcommittee turned its attention Tuesday to its next steps, including a public information campaign.

In addition to discussing ways to get the facts out about the $71.4 million project and its funding sources, subcommittee members also discussed the need to hire an owner's project manager and whether the manager would be needed to assist prior to the referendum. The subcommittee also discussed the optimal month for a referendum, and agreed to ask the Town Council to consider a date in October.

Committee members agreed that getting as much factual information about the project and details about financing out to the public before the vote will be critical.

"We have more information available to us ahead of this referendum that there should be no question about the cost, and that's part of my reasoning for my request to make sure that all the information that's been in subcommittees or in the town department is made available to the public," said Justin Hopkins, a member of the subcommittee.

For instance, Hopkins said, a financial analysis performed by municipal Finance Director Dyann Baker showed that the proposed project would have nearly the same impact on taxes as the $38.5 million project that voters rejected in 2016.

Gina Fuller, building subcommittee co-chairwoman, said the information campaign should address misconceptions, including an erroneous belief that the building project would be the sole driving force behind a projected tax increase beyond the 4 percent cap imposed by the state. While taxes are projected to exceed the cap for two or three years, Fuller noted that borrowing for the project would be just one contributing factor along with the town and schools operating budgets and borrowing for road projects, and an anticipated bond for the municipal sewer system. The tax cap can be exceeded for specific reasons, including municipal debt, with the consent of the state.

The subcommittee also agreed to have Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau make a presentation to the district's teachers on the project before the end of the school year and again in the fall. Susan Martin, principal of Springbrook Elementary School and a member of the subcommittee, suggested the presentation as a means to rally excitement and support.

"Because although the WTA leadership is behind the project, I'm not so sure that the membership always is," Martin said. The WTA is the Westery Teachers Association, the union that represents the teachers.

The project, if approved by voters, would be paid for with funds borrowed through the issuance of a bond. The state Department of Education's Council on Elementary and Secondary Education recently approved the project for a reimbursement rate of up to 52.5 percent, and last week the Town Council voted 5-2 to send the project to a referendum.

"I think that people don't necessarily see that there are different funding sources. If we can convey to them that this is not money being taken away from jobs, this is money for buildings and it's a separate source of funding," Martin said.

Plans call for spending about $37.3 million to build a new two-story State Street School for the district's students in Grades 3 to 5 and razing the current State Street School building. Dunn's Corners School would be renovated for $13.5 million, Springbrook School for $7 million, Westerly High School's Ward Hall for $8.87 million and Babcock Hall for $3.87 million. Districtwide security repairs that are also planned would cost $2.2 million.

Hopkins also asked that the subcommittee prepare to answer questions that residents have asked regarding the project's potential effect on bus routes and changes to the administration of the elementary schools. "I  think we would be doing a disservice to the plan if we don't at least talk about [the questions] to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible," Hopkins said.

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