WESTERLY — The Town Council spent about 30 minutes Monday discussing the proposed school building project after a resident raised questions about the project during the citizens comments portion of the council's meeting.
The impromptu discussion was spurred by comments and questions raised by Jennifer Brinton, who served as chairwoman in 2014 of the Schools Redesign Advisory Committee. She asked the council to get answers to several questions she raised about the new proposed project that will go before voters in a referendum scheduled for Oct. 10.
Brinton's question included whether the proposed project will lead to increases in the school district's operating budget for potential additional personnel and buses; and whether a traffic study was conducted for the area surrounding the proposed new State Street School building.
Christine Cooke, co-chairwoman of the School Committee's School Building Subcommittee, addressed Brinton's questions in a brief interview with The Sun following the council's discussion. According to Cooke, a traffic study was conducted by Beta Engineering and the firm's report on the study is available as part of the project's Stage II application/submission to the state Department of Education. The application and other material on the project is available at http://westerlylegacyplan.com/.
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. In addition to a new State School, the project calls for renovation and additions to Dunn's Corners Elementary School, renovations and upgrades to Springbrook Elementary School, a new heating and ventilation system at Westerly High School and other district-wide safety and security, environmental control and technology improvements.
Brinton said the proposed project is too ambitious and expensive.
"There are other options that better utilize our existing assets including renovations and upgrades costing a whole lot less than this plan," Brinton said.
Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said some of Brinton's questions had previously been addressed. He also questioned whether the Town Council could provide the answers, suggesting the School Committee would be a better source of information.
"I'm not trying to hold up the release of any information, the more information that's out there the better. I just referenced the groups that can provide that information. The last bond, that failed, to repair the schools, I voted for. I wanted to repair the schools so now we have a new program for a new school at State Street, and much of the design questions that were raised tonight I feel the information has been out there," Duhamel said.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno questioned whether all of Brinton's questions were previously addressed and urged her fellow councilors to get the answers to ensure voters are well prepared before they vote.
"Yes you can ask the School Committee, but it falls on our shoulders as well," Giorno said.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr., like Duhamel said he voted in favor of the $38.5 million project that failed in 2016. Those plans called for closing State Street School and renovating the other elementary schools. Something needs to be done, he said.
"My daughter goes to State Street School and the building sucks ... she comes home from school every day and she smells," Cooke said.
Later Cooke urged residents to vote.
"Sometimes you can get the answer 18 times and you don't like the answer so you get mad. What can I tell you? Vote no. I don't mean to be rude or crass about this, but the bottom line is you're going to vote yes or no, so just go do it. That's your voice ... but don't expect us to agree with you 100%," Cooke said.
Christine Cooke, who is married to Caswell, called the council's discussion of the project a violation of the state Open Meetings Act because it was not listed on the council's agenda. She also questioned why the councilors are not more familiar with the project.
"I find that the councilors are either not taking the time to look at this information ... I don't know if it's purposeful. The Westerly Legacy website has the full plan, including the traffic study. I have not received any questions from any of the folks saying they can't find the information ... I don't know if it's purposeful, but it is starting to feel like that," Cooke said.