WESTERLY — The Town Council fine-tuned its vote this week to send the proposed school redesign project to a referendum in the fall, but not before engaging in another debate that touched on the cost of the project and councilors' opinions about how it was presented to them by school officials.
On Monday the council voted 5-2 to approve a resolution asking the state General Assembly to enact legislation authorizing the town to issue general obligation bonds not to exceed $71,410,000 if the bond issuance is approved by the town's voters. The bond issuance would be based on a minimum reimbursement rate of 35 percent from the state, according to the resolution approved by the Town Council.
The state Department of Education's Council on Elementary and Secondary Education Council on May 14 approved a reimbursement rate of up to 52.5 percent, but everything over 35 percent is based on the project meeting incentives established by the state. Whether the project meets the incentives, which the project was designed to meet, would be determined by the state when construction is substantially complete.
On May 21, the Town Council approved, by the same vote, a resolution that put the cost of the project at $71 million, but officials on Monday said the $71,410,000 figure is the most accurate cost of the project. The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education has approved up to $74.28 million.
Councilor Brian McCuin, who voted against the resolution on Monday and on May 21, said the council had "sold" the project based on the anticipated 52.5 percent reimbursement rate, but several councilors corrected him. Council President Christopher Duhamel said voters would be informed before the referendum that the minimum reimbursement rate is 35 percent but that the higher rate is expected.
"We're not misleading the public. We will have all the numbers out there," Duhamel said. "We're going to have the maximum cost to the public, which is the 35 percent and we're going to have the maximum benefit to the public which was promised and is probable at 52.5 percent."
Councilor Suzanne Giorno, who made the motion approved by the council during its May 21 meeting, also tried to provide clarity for McCuin. She said she wanted voters to understand that a 35 percent reimbursement rate is the highest that can be guaranteed. "We cannot sell to the public anything above that because we don't know if we're going to get that," she said.
McCuin had advocated a lower-cost project, but Councilor Sharon Ahern reminded him that changes to the approved plan would have required the school district to start the planning process all over again and reapply to the state Department of Education. "We were told you go back to the end of the line. That was another problematic issue," Ahern said.
The project entails 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 and renovations to Westerly Middle School are also planned.
Councilor William Aiello, who joined McCuin in voting against both resolutions, said he opposed the project because questions he asked the state Department of Education's School Building Authority were not adequately answered. He was also critical of the process used to develop the project by the School Committee's Building Subcommittee. He called for a "prudent measured approach" that makes better use of the school district's existing buildings. "My objection is primarily based on financial, practical and safety reasons," Aiello said.