standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council voted 5-2 during a special meeting Tuesday to send the proposed $71.4 million school building project to a referendum in the fall.

Voters will be asked to approve borrowing up to $71.4 million through the issuance of a bond. The bond issuance would be based on a minimum reimbursement rate of 35 percent from the state. The state Department of Education's Council on Elementary and Secondary Education approved a $74.28 million project and up to a 52.5 percent reimbursement rate last week. The higher figure includes a five-year capital improvement plan that Westerly school officials said would be paid for with funds in the school district's annual operating budget, not the bond.

Because the 52.5 percent reimbursement rate is contingent upon the project meeting incentive goals established by the state education department as part of its "newer and fewer schools" educational enhancements and health and safety improvements, the referendum question will reflect the minimum reimbursement rate available. But local school officials say they are confident that the project will qualify for the higher rate once it is completed and inspected by the state.

The Town Council's vote followed a more than two-hour-long analysis and discussion of the project before an audience of about 20 people gathered in the Municipal Courtroom at Town Hall. The atmosphere was tense until it started to become clear that at least four council members appeared to be leaning toward sending the project to referendum. Without the vote to put the bond on the ballot,  the project, in development for nearly two years, would likely have come to a complete halt, sending school officials back to the very beginning.

Council President Christopher Duhamel and Councilors Suzanne Giorno, Sharon Ahern, Karen Cioffi, and Caswell Cooke Jr. voted in favor of sending the project to a referendum. Councilors William Aiello and Brian McCuin voted against the measure, saying the project was too expensive.

"I'm really proud of the amount of time and effort the council put into this issue ... we made certain and verified the finances and program issues and had the benefit of the building committee's good work," Duhamel said.

Some of the councilors who voted to send the project to a referendum expressed concerns about the cost but said the voters should decide.

"Is it a stretch? It's a stretch. That's what I struggle with. I think we all struggle with it," Ahern said.

Ahern, Cioffi, and Duhamel stressed the need to disseminate as much information to voters as possible about the project and the financial analysis prepared by the town staff.

"We know that something has to be done. No, I'm not thrilled about $74 million, I would prefer $54 million, but nonetheless I can tell you I'm not going to take away anyone's vote. This has got to go out" for a vote, Cioffi said.

Giorno expressed a similar sentiment, saying voters will have to decide whether they want to pay for the project through a projected increase in taxes.

"The fact of the matter is there's a lot of people in this town and there's a lot of money at stake and we need to do something for these kids. Is this huge build the right thing? I think it has to go to the voters," Giorno said.

Plans call for 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 that are also planned would cost $2.2 million.

Cooke, in a role he has frequently played, urged a vote by the council. He noted the time devoted to the project by school officials.

"Now there is one of two things to do. Fish or cut bait. Out of respect to these people who have done all this work, let's move it forward for a vote or kill it now," Cooke said.

McCuin said he did not believe the analysis performed by the town's finance department.

"If I firmly believe we can't afford it why would I allow that choice" by voters, McCuin said.

Aiello said the school district does not need a new building and could easily accommodate its student population in existing buildings, including the closed Bradford School. He also repeated perceived problems with the State Street School site.

After the council vote, members of the School Committee's Building Subcommittee expressed thanks and gratitude. "I'm very happy with the outcome. Now the voters have an opportunity. The project will be judged by the voters," said Christine Cooke, co-chairwoman of the subcommittee.

Gina Fuller, the subcommittee's other co-chairwoman, thanked Duhamel for requesting an in-depth financial analysis of the project by Finance Director Dyann Baker. "I'm very happy with the analysis. That's the type of analysis and long-term planning we've asked for for years," she said.

Officials will soon turn their attention to explaining the project to the town's voters.

"So they can see clearly what it means for the town. I'm very very happy," Duhamel said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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