WESTERLY — The School Committee, during an intensely busy meeting Wednesday, agreed to ask the Town Council to reconsider its decision not to support a school building project application to the state, file the application on its own, and to seek information on whether it has grounds to pursue legal proceedings against the council.
The committee also voted 5-2 to rescind a Jan. 29 motion that called for closing State Street Elementary School at the end of the current school year. State Street School was at the heart of both the $38.5 million building project that failed to gain voter approval in 2016 as well as the $71.4 million project that was voted down in October.
On Monday, the Town Council voted 4-3 to not support submission of a Stage 1 application to the Rhode Island Department of Education. Stage 1 applications, which serve as an announcement of need but do not propose detailed solutions such as renovations, new construction, or both, are the second step in the Ride "Necessity of Construction" process following submission of a letter of intent.
The School Committee also voted to widen the scope of direction it gave to its Building Committee in January from a scaled-down elementary school-focused version of the plan that failed in October to a scope that will allow the Building Committee to look at all district schools. On Monday, many of the councilors who voted against approving a Stage I application said they were concerned with the original charge given to the Building Committee.
Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said broadening the scope would send a positive message to the Town Council.
"I think it would show good faith on our part and then we could direct the Building Committee as appropriate in hopes that we could in fact get the Town Council to push this forth," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau called the council's decision not to move the Stage I application forward "unfathomable" and asked that the council reconsider. He noted that the same council had previously approved Stage I and Stage II applications for the previous project that ultimately failed in October in recognition of the need to address deficiencies in district schools.
"Because they realized they should put it in the hands of the voters. Are we now saying there is not a need? I would hope not," Garceau said.
Garceau also noted that the results of a survey conducted by a professional research company suggested a plurality of support among registered voters for a project that includes a new school building.
"Because some people see that the polling says the community would support a new build … now [they] don't trust the polling, [they] discredit the company, the process, the committee," Garceau said.
The council's action could also have a chilling effect on efforts to address the schools in the future, he said.
"You would have to be out of your minds if you committed more money to more consultants if the Town Council is going to shut it down," Garceau said.
The School Committee, at the request of member Mary Adams, agreed by consensus to ask its lawyer, William Nardone, to research whether there are grounds for the committee to initiate legal action against the council.
"The School Committee is not a subcommittee of the Town Council, but it sure feels that way. The School Committee is a unique and separate body with clearly defined powers and duties, and I do not take kindly to a council that prevents this body from carrying out its responsibilities," Adams said.
She also accused the council of failing to acknowledge the RIDE-approved education plan that serves as the foundation of the building project process.
"The Town Council has spent considerable time disregarding it. They have disregarded the School Committee and the Building Committee and the district's educators, the experts, consultants, the volunteers and the students that have provided input to arrive at an education vision with long-term implications for our community," Adams said.
The School Committee also voted unanimously to appoint Christine Cooke as its chairwoman following Chiaradio Bowdy's resignation from the position.
The motion to rescind the vote to close State Street Elementary School passed 5-2, with Adams, Cooke, Rebecca Greene, Tim Killam and Kristen Sweeney voting in favor. Chiaradio Bowdy and Marianne Nardone voted against the motion to rescind the earlier vote.
The Town Council is scheduled to conduct a special meeting Friday at 3:15 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall. Both agenda items involve the Stage I application, which is due to RIDE no later than Monday.