090519 WES State Street School renovations 73.JPG

Christine Cooke, left, and Gina Fuller, who co-chair the Westerly School Committee's Building Subcommittee, stand in front of State Street Elementary School on Thursday, September 5, 2019. The school would be torn down and replaced if the proposed school building project is approved in October. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the Westerly school building project that will be on the ballot in October.

WESTERLY — On Oct. 10 voters will be asked to approve borrowing for a school building project that is focused, primarily, on improving the district's elementary schools but would also address needs at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School.

Proponents say the project will give the town's youngest students the best chance to learn by reconfiguring the elementary schools to put prekindergarten through Grade 2 students in the Springbrook and Dunn's Corners elementary schools. The current State Street Elementary School building would be torn down and replaced with a new one for Grades 3 to 5 at the same location.

"We focused on educational outcomes, not buildings, not bricks and mortar, not just facilities," said Christine Cooke, a member of the School Committee and co-chairwoman of its Building Subcommittee.

The project was developed through a community process that involved focus groups, forums and surveys.

Gina Fuller, the Building Subcommittee's other co-chairwoman, said, "I didn't like it at first but the more we talked to parents and educators it started to make sense that this is the right thing for teaching and learning."

The pre-K to second grade setup will allow teachers to focus on numeracy and literacy skills before students move on to a new school for third grade when statewide testing begins, Cooke said.

Opponents say the reconfiguration model has not been proved effective and will add another transition for students.

The project also includes plans to replace heating and ventilation systems at Westerly High School's Ward and Babcock halls and other districtwide safety and security, environmental control and technology improvements. Westerly Middle School would benefit, proponents say, by eliminating overutilization — fifth graders would move to the new State Street Elementary School.

Affordability and cost are also being debated. Voters will be asked to decide on the issuance of bonds up to $71.4 million, but only $65.9 million of the bond proceeds would fund the total project cost of $75.2 million. The state has agreed to reimburse at least 35% of eligible parts of the project, which would amount to $29.5 million in reimbursement, and up to 50% of eligible costs, which would amount to $45.8 million. Members of the School Building Subcommittee and representatives of RGB Architects of Providence, which designed the project, say they are confident that the project will receive 50 percent reimbursement once the state determines that all of its threshold incentives for the higher rate have been met.

Fuller called the 50% reimbursement "historic once-in-a-lifetime funding," but not all officials agree.

"If you don't need it don't buy it. I equate it to a buy one get one free sale at a store. If you don't  need the first one the second one is not a bargain," said Town Councilor William Aiello.

Calling the project "too much money for something we don't need," Aiello noted that student enrollment has dropped since 2003 and is projected to decrease more through 2028. He acknowledged a need to improve the town's elementary schools but said a solution can be found without constructing a new building.

Plans call for the school district's five-year capital plan to pay for $3.8 million of the project's cost, and it will receive $5.4 million in start-up "pay go" funds from the state. At the end of the 25-year borrowing period, the town's taxpayers would pay $76.8 million in principal and interest under the 35 percent reimbursement model, or $58.9 million under the 50 percent reimbursement model.

According to estimates developed by municipal Finance Director Dyann Baker, the project, at the 35% reimbursement rate, would bring about an estimated cumulative tax increase of $3,818 for the owner of a house with an assessed value of $250,000 over the 25 year life of the bond. The owner of the same house would see a $97 tax increase in 2020-21 as a result of the project. Taxes would stop increasing as a result of the project after 2026, when a number of current municipal debt obligations are scheduled to be paid off.

The elementary school portion of the project would complete Vision 2020, a study finished in 2001, that laid out three stages of facility upgrades: first the middle school, then the high school, and now the elementary level. This project is the second time voters will consider an elementary school redesign — a $38.5 million project that would have been reimbursed by the state at a 35% rate was rejected by the voters in November 2016.

The failed project would have resulted in the closing of State Street Elementary School and renovations performed at the Dunn's Corners, Springbrook, and Bradford elementary schools. Not long after that project was voted down the School Committee moved to close Bradford School.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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