WESTERLY — The Town Council voted 4-3 Monday against allowing an application to be submitted to Rhode Island Department of Education to keep the school construction process moving forward. With the application due in less than one week, the project appears to have hit an irreversible standstill.
Councilors who voted against approving submission of the Stage I application were largely focused on a belief that the project would include a new building. The Stage I application serves as a statement and description of need but does not include detailed solutions, such as whether a new building would be included. Those details, in accordance with the RIDE Necessity of School Construction process, would come at later phases.
But some members of the Town Council said they were troubled by the direction the School Committee gave to its Building Subcommittee — to develop a scaled-down version of the plan, focused on the district's elementary schools, that was rejected in a 2,180-1,726 vote in October. Councilor Karen Cioffi expressed concern that a scaled-down version of the previous plan would mean some proposed renovations would not occur.
"Eliminating identified renovations in some of our schools will lead us to worsening conditions and increased costs in the future," Cioffi said.
The $71.4 million project that was on the ballot in October called for tearing down and building a new State Street School, renovating Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools, work at Westerly High School and districtwide improvements. The project qualified for at least 35% and up to 50% reimbursement of principal and interest from RIDE.
Justin Hopkins, School Building Committee chairman, during remarks before the council's discussion and ultimate vote, explained that the committee planned to review several plans that had been proposed by residents. Included among those plans are ones proposed by Councilor Suzanne Giorno and former School Committee member and Finance Board Chairman Jay Goodman. Hopkins also said the committee planned to seek clarification from the School Committee on the exact nature of its charge to develop a scaled back plan.
"It's vague," Hopkins said.
Still, members of the Town Council insisted the plan would take a certain shape. Councilor Wiliam Aiello, who worked to defeat the project that failed in October, said the committee would develop a plan that left off work at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School and scaled back renovations at Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools. The new project would "focus on a new building that we really don't need and that the taxpayers will have to fund," he said.
In a time of declining student enrollment, Aiello said the building project should focus on existing facilities.
Councilor Brian McCuin, a newly appointed member of the Building Subcommittee, said the panel had not discussed specific plans.
"I don't think we have decided whether to build new. It hasn't come up," McCuin said.
Councilor Sharon Ahern said the new proposal would likely have to include a new building because the education plan approved by RIDE calls for a school that would house Grades 3-5 and called on school officials to reexamine the plan.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno said residents she had spoken with did not want a scaled down version of the plan that failed in October.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. asked his fellow councilors to consider approving a Stage I application but also encouraged Hopkins not to develop a plan that included a new build.
Council President Christopher Duhamel made a similar point.
"We will be telling RIDE we don't have a need. If we keep going ... the council has full authority to stop it" at some point in the future, he said.
After the vote Christine Cooke, a School Committee member and Building Committee vice chairwoman, said it was difficult to find words to describe what happened.
"The Town Council has said to the community that there is no need to address the facilities in the Westerly public schools. That is basically the message tonight. The Stage I application was simply to say to RIDE that there is a need to address the buildings," Cooke said.
Hopkins also expressed disappointment.
"We tried to demonstrate that there was time in the schedule to develop alternative solutions but it appears that they would like to have those answers before they move anything forward. We feel we've gone out of our way to be deliberate in developing a plan on how we get there, but unfortunately we no longer appear to have a path forward," Hopkins said.
The council's vote comes despite the results of a survey conducted on behalf of the School Committee. The results showed a plurality of voters in the town support construction of a new school building as part of a potential new building project.
Cioffi, Ahern, Aiello, and Giorno voted against submitting a Stage I application. Duhamel, Caswell Cooke Jr. and McCuin voted to submit the application.