WESTERLY — Members of the School Committee and its building subcommittee are rallying support for the proposed school redesign project that they hope the Town Council will let taxpayers decide at a referendum later this year.
"We are encouraging members of the community to email the Town Council members, come to the next Town Council meeting, submit letters to the editor, and share their support through social media. The building committee did its job and this plan ultimately belongs to the community, so it's especially critical now that they express their support for the project and/or for the opportunity to vote on it," Christine Cooke, who co-chairs the building committee, said Friday.
In the works for about two years, the project now faces its next critical juncture — a decision from the Town Council on whether to send the $71.4 million project to referendum. School building committee members hope that the council approves sending the project to a vote at its May 20 meeting. That would allow ample time to secure General Assembly approval of a referendum and prepare the ballot.
A referendum, if approved, would likely be scheduled for September or November. To move the project forward will require four affirmative votes from the seven-member council, a majority some school advocates fear may be elusive.
Between the current proposal and the one that voters rejected in 2016, the School Committee has spent close to $500,000 on consultants hired to help develop plans.
"The taxpayers paid the half a million to get where we are. Let them have the choice. Let them have the decision. It shouldn't be anyone else but the taxpayers," School Committee member Tim Killam said during the committee's meeting Wednesday. "If they don't want it, they're going to say so, like they did last time, and if they do want it they'll put it forward, but they have the right to say so. They are the residents of Westerly. They paid for it."
Killam criticized members of the Town Council, saying they had failed to follow the project as it was developed over the course of two years and did not insist that a representative of the municipal government attend the building committee's meetings. A position on the building panel had been reserved for such a representative. "They're not holding anyone responsible for that and questioning every single aspect of this when they're not doing their part," Killam said. "I'm sorry, I have a problem with that."
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, who stopped attending the building committee meetings several months ago, said his schedule did not allow him to attend. "I was attending finance meetings or the council budget workshops for the majority that I missed. Also, my work commitments at the town rarely allow for the luxury of dropping everything and going over to the school at 4 p.m.," Rooney said.
However, even though he did not attend the sessions, Rooney said he remained in communication with Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau about the project.
In addition to the original $71.4 million project, the building committee approved three lower priced options of $57 million, $55.2 million and $50.7 million after listening to cost concerns raised by members of the Town Council.
The $71.4 million project entails razing the State Street School and constructing a new two-story school at the same location for the town's Grades 3-5 students; renovations to Dunn's Corners Elementary School, Springbrook Elementary School, and both buildings at Westerly High School, and other districtwide improvements.
School officials anticipate that half of the project cost would be reimbursed by the state. Including interest payments, the project is estimated to cost local taxpayers $56.7 million, according to Barbara Perino, the school district's director of finance and operations. School officials expect to receive a more definitive answer on the reimbursement rate this week. Regardless of the approved rate, the actual reimbursement will depend on the district's compliance with terms set by the state Department of Education.
In February, the town's financial adviser, Stephen Maceroni, director of PFM Financial Advisors LLC of Providence, said the town had adequate capacity to take on the debt associated with the $71.4 million project, plus an additional $5 million in debt. But Maceroni also said the school project would likely cause the town to exceed the state's 4 percent cap on annual tax levy increases. Exceeding the cap would require state approval.
The reimbursement rate would be reduced to a 35 to 40 percent for the lower cost options developed by the building committee because the project would no longer qualify for some of the incentive credits offered by the state. The first option, which would lower the cost to $57 million, would omit a districtwide heating and cooling control system, central heating and ventilation work at Westerly High School, and replacement of the waste and grease system at Ward Hall on the high school campus.
The second option, which would bring the cost to $55.2 million, would omit the same items as the first option and also eliminate a two-story addition to Dunn's Corner's Elementary School.
The third option, which would cost $50.7 million, would eliminate the same items as the first two options and would also eliminate all planned new items at the Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools except for new ventilation and sprinkler systems and roofs.
Cooke said no other options could be considered without restarting the entire process because the state had essentially approved the $71.4 million project and the three lower cost alternatives. New plans, on the other hand, would be subject to development and review process that could take months.
The project has been endorsed by the state School Building Authority, and a portion of the reimbursement would come from the $250 million school repair bond approved by the state's voters in November.
"Should the Town Council limit the bond amount to $50 million, for example, this means Westerly would leave as much as $10 million of state aid on the table, monies that will go to another community, while leaving the needs at schools like Dunn's Corners Elementary and Springbrook Elementary unaddressed," Cooke said Wednesday.
Cooke also read a letter that was emailed to the Town Council and copied to the School Committee from a local real estate agent and parent of children who attend State Street School. The writer, whose identity was verified by The Sun, encouraged the Town Council to move the project forward to the voters.
"Our buildings should reflect the quality of education we strive to provide. Have you ever considered that the declining school population could be due in part to our decaying buildings?" the writer asked, noting that many families were choosing to buy homes in neighboring towns rather than in Westerly because "they see the facilities being updated and due to this they feel the communities care and value education."
School Committee member Mary Adams said she would support both the $71.4 million project and the $57 million project but not the other two lower cost options. She also pushed back at councilors who were critical of the lower-cost options. "I reject the notion that we are being strategic. We're being thorough ... the plan is based on a comprehensive analysis of our schools. We're not trying to box them in," she said.
Rebecca Greene, a member of the School Committee, praised the work of the building committee and questioned the timing of the Town Council's questions, late in the process.
Cooke encouraged all School Committee members to drum up support for the project and for the Town Council to allow voters to weigh in on it. "Unfortunately it's going to be an uphill battle," she said.
The Town Council is scheduled to continue its discussion of the school building project Monday during a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall. The meeting agenda does not include a public comment period but the agenda for the council's meeting at 6 p.m., also on Monday, does allow for a public comment. A list of the councilors' phone numbers and email addresses is available through the municipal website at http://westerlyri.gov/475/Contact