WESTERLY — The School Committee voted 4-2 Wednesday to turn over the Bradford School building to the town. The school has been vacant since the last day of school in 2017.
The vote to relinquish control of the building means that questions about the future uses of the building and site would become the responsibility of the Town Council.
The decision to close the school, which was under consideration for several years, continues to draw criticism from some residents and at least one School Committee member. The decision to give up control of the school comes as work continues on a school redesign project that would result in a new State Street School and improvements to the district's other schools.
Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, School Committee chairwoman, said she agreed that the committee "needs to reduce our assets" but said missteps had occurred.
"The thing I said when we closed Bradford rather than State Street is that we closed the wrong school. We closed a school for convenience because people didn't want to drive the incredible 10-minute trip to Bradford. We closed a building that was in much much better shape than State Street," she said.
Committee member Christine Cooke responded to Chiaradio Bowdy by noting that two consultants hired by the School Committee both determined that the Bradford School site was not appropriate for expansion. Cooke also said that repairing the septic system at the Bradford School to accommodate maximum capacity use of the school would cost about $1 million.
Chiaradio Bowdy and new committee member Tim Killam voted against the motion to turn the Bradford building over to the Town Council. Killam was participating in his first School Committee meeting since being appointed by the Town Council to fill the vacancy created by the death of Patricia Panciera.
"I agree we do have to do something. We need to turn over one of two buildings but I'm still not convinced that Bradford is the right one," Killam said.
School Committee member Mary Adams, who had asked Chiaradio Bowdy to put the issue of unused school buildings on the agenda, said that keeping the Bradford school drained financial resources and was a potential distraction.
In addition to supporting the move to turn over control of the Bradford School building to the town, she called for a plan for the future of the Tower Street School building. The Tower Street building is envisioned for use as "swing space" to house State Street School students during construction if the redesign project moves forward.
According to Adams, the district had about 3,500 students in the 2008-09 school year and had eight buildings. Currently, she said, enrollment has dropped to 2,700 students but the district, prior to the vote on Wednesday, continued to maintain and control eight buildings, including five elementary school buildings.
"This is not sustainable, in my view. We must consolidate. Why? It allows us to narrow our focus and our funding on our core mission and our core responsibilities," Adams said.
Adams also noted that the School Building Committee, which helped develop the current redesign plan, considered four different plans but none included a use for the Bradford School site.
Before to the committee's discussion on Wednesday, Kaley Burkholder, a Bradford resident, asked the committee to consider her plan to use the Bradford School Building as a children's museum. Adams and other School Committee members said that by turning the building over to the Town Council, the building could be used for a new purpose.
"In my view the Bradford property has a potential use in our community. However, finding that use and purpose is not the responsibility of the Westerly School Committee. Our job is to be certain that we are providing an outstanding education that has a purpose in a child's life and focusing our attention and resources to that end. We must focus on our core mission," Adams said.
Repurposing school buildings but keeping them under the School Committee's control has the effect of making the committee a landlord and "putting it in the business" of social services, recreation, and child care, Adams said, referring to some of the programs that have been conducted at the Tower Street School Community Center since the building stopped being used solely as a school in 2009.
While the programs are worthwhile, Adams said, they divert the committee's attention and have resulted in the use of education funds to pay for or subsidize some of the programs.
Adams, Cooke, and Committee members Rebecca Greene and Christine Piezzo voted in favor of relinquishing control of the building. Committee member Marianne Nardone did not attend the meeting.
Piezzo said the committee's vote could help the Bradford community by clarifying the future of the building.