standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The fate of the proposed school redesign project now rests with the Town Council.

On Monday the council discussed a range of issues related to the project, including whether to simply decide on a total amount the town can afford and then asking the School Committee's building subcommittee to fashion a plan based on the council's number.

The building committee has proposed a $71.4 million  project that would pay for construction of a new State Street School to house the district's Grades 3-5 students, and renovations to Dunn's Corners Elementary School, Springbrook Elementary School, both buildings at Westerly High School, and other districtwide improvements. School officials anticipate that half of the project cost would be reimbursed by the state. Including interest, the project is estimated to cost local taxpayers $56.7 million, according to Barbara Perino, the school district's director of finance and operations.

Responding to councilors' concerns about the cost of the project, the building committee has offered lower cost alternatives of $50.7 million, $55.1 million, and $57.1 million. The first option, which would lower the cost to $57 million, would omit a districtwide heating and cooling control system, central heating and ventilation at Westerly High School, and replacement of the waste and grease system at Ward Hall on the high school campus.

The second option, which would bring the cost to $55.2 million, would omit the same items as the first option and also eliminate a two-story addition to Dunn's Corner's Elementary School.

The third option, which would cost $50.7 million, would eliminate the same items as the first two options and would also eliminate all planned new items at the Dunn's Corners and Springbrook elementary schools except for new ventilation and sprinkler systems and roofs.

Councilor Sharon Ahern questioned the usefulness of the options, noting that school officials have stated that the omitted items would eventually have to be accomplished.

"These aren't really options to me because they are presented at the last minute...I feel the School Committee and the building committee are saying the only option is the $74 million," Ahern said.

The $74 million figure Ahern used refers to the maximum amount of borrowing for the project recommended by the Rhode Island School Building Authority. The $74 million includes about $3 million in capital improvements that the local building committee does not plan to pay for with the bond issue that will be required for the overall project. Instead, the capital projects would be paid out of the town's annual capital improvement budget. The capital projects would have to be completed to ensure that the building project is reimbursed at 50 percent.

Ahern also questioned the wisdom of a project that calls for a new building that has not yet been reviewed  by the municipal Planning Board.

Councilor William Aiello said he would not vote in favor of any project unless he was provided with a copy of the Stage 2 application submitted to the state Department of Education. He also suggested that the council could develop its own options. "We're not limited to these three options, contrary to whatever is implied by the superintendent or the building committee," Aiello said.

Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. asked his fellow councilors to start the process of determining affordability by considering their common ground. And, he said, unless the council is unanimous in its support, the project will likely fail at a referendum. "What if we go back and start at a foundation of how to get to yes for something ... What is it that we feel comfortable moving forward in terms of a dollar amount?" Cooke said.

Unless the council sends a proposed project along to the voters and the voters approve it, Cooke said, "then the kids lose again while we go back to the drawing board."

The council's responsibility, said Council President Christopher Duhamel, is to find a project amount that is reasonable and fits within the town's other financial needs. "We have to bring something forward the town can afford if it's passed by the voters," he said.

The building committee hopes the council will schedule a referendum for September. Duhamel said the council must analyze the town's debt capacity and the project's effect on taxes and how it would work with the town's annual operating budget.

Councilor Suzanne Giorno, like Ahern, questioned the value of the options provided by the building committee. She also repeated a previous request for school officials to obtain written assurance from the state education department that the interest associated with borrowing for the building project would be reimbursed by the state.

Councilor Brian McCuin said his vote would be based on affordability. "I will not vote for something I think is not fiscally responsible," he said.

He cautioned council members to limit their discussion to the cost of the project and not wander into educational programming. Otherwise, he said, the council could face a lawsuit for treading into the School Committee's purview as established by state law.

Duhamel has said the council must decide on a referendum by May 20, but Aiello has expressed doubt about such a schedule.

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