standing Westerly school bus

WESTERLY — The School Committee continued its discussion of the school district's annual capital improvement budget on Wednesday and agreed to delay action on the plan until it receives additional back-up material on some of the requests made by administrators.

Each year the School Committee endorses capital requests that are then submitted to the town manager, who distributes the requests to the Planning Board, which considers requests from the schools and municipal department heads and typically assigns priorities to the items. The Planning Board's recommendations are then forwarded to the town manager, who considers them when he develops the capital improvement budget submitted along with his annual budget request to the finance board.

Town Manager J. Mark Rooney granted the School Committee's request for an extension to file its submission this year from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1. At the time the extension was requested, school officials said they wanted to learn the fate of the proposed school building project that is the subject of a special referendum today.

The current proposed schools capital request for 2021 totals $1.22 million worth of projects for bus replacement, roof repairs and drainage work; asphalt repair; concrete work; exterior painting and repairs; playground repairs; remodeling the auditorium at Westerly High School's Ward Hall; Chromebook computer replacement at Westerly Middle School; and classroom furniture for 20 classrooms at the high school.

The School Committee asked for additional backup material on the district's bus replacement plan and its technology plan.

John Pagano, the district's director of facilities, explained that his requests are based on a strategy that calls for a regular system of replacement and repair. The approach requires "allocating money to major building categories on a regular basis without a defined amount or a defined scope of work so you're extending the life of the assets...there's 15 major building categories so if you are always applying allocations of money to at least seven of them on a rolling basis you will be attaining the goals," Pagano said.

School Committee member Mary Adams said that while she agreed the work identified by Pagano needs to be done the broad nature of the requests would violate a town policy that prohibits grouping building projects in the annual capital improvement requests to meet a $49,000 threshold. Adams also questioned whether some of the proposed work meets the definition of one-time, big-ticket capital improvement projects or whether the projects would more accurately be described as maintenance.

Adams noted that School Committee members sometimes bemoan the district's capital requests not getting funded. "But I wonder if they don't get funded because they aren't capital projects," Adams said.

As an alternative means to fund some of the projects, Adams suggested using part of the School Committee's fund balance, which she said will likely be close to $3 million once surplus funds from the 2018-19 fiscal year are added to it.

"We'll have $3 million sitting there and if we have Mr. Pagano use that, because that's unspent money in the operating budget. If we don't ever get to the point where we use operating money for operating projects it's never going to get right," Adams said.

Garceau agreed that the district's surplus funds should be applied to capital projects when the fund balance reaches its maximum recommended level, "So [Pagano] can chip away at work that should have been years ago," Garceau said.

Garceau acknowledged that none of the projects in the district's five-year capital improvement plan filed with the state Department of Education are included in the request reviewed Wednesday by the School Committee. He said some of the projects will be paid for with the school building project bond if it is approved today by voters and some will likely be included in future capital requests made to the town.

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