WESTERLY — A school building project application will be submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Education with the endorsement of both local school and town officials after all.
The School Committee made their stance clear on Wednesday by voting in favor of endorsing the Stage I application to RIDE, but it looked like the town endorsement would be missing after the Town Council voted 4-3 against the application on Monday. That changed on Friday when council members revisited the topic, this time voted 3-2 in favor of endorsing the application.
RIDE regulations require signatures of both local school and town officials. One councilor's changed vote paved the way for a fully signed application.
"My vote changes based on the new information that was provided," said Councilor Suzanne Giorno, whose vote Friday changed the direction of the application.
Giorno explained that following the vote Monday she looked for a way "to bridge the gap" between various factions that have arisen surrounding the school building project. She cited the School Committee's vote Wednesday to broaden the scope of work it assigned its Building Committee as critical.
The School Committee originally asked the Building Committee to develop a scaled down, elementary school-focused project based on the $71.4 million one that was rejected by voters in October. On Wednesday the School Committee broadened the charge to the Building Committee to include a consideration of all district schools.
Giorno also spoke highly of Justin Hopkins, Building Committee chairman, noting that he served on the Building Committee that developed the failed 2016 plan and on the committee that developed the plan that was voted down in October. The 2016 plan called only for renovations while last year's plan included both renovations and construction of one new school to replace the current State Street Elementary School.
"If there's anyone here who can be counted on it's him because he's been on both sides," Giorno said.
Residents should feel free to contact her to discuss their ideas and opinions on how to address school facilities, Giorno said. She also stressed that a new project does not have to be ready for a vote in November and might require more time to develop given the Building Committee's previous commitment to review proposals suggested by residents including herself.
Not all councilors were persuaded to change their votes. Councilor Sharon Ahern noted that some school officials are pushing to get a project ready for the November ballot. She also noted that the current education plan, which will serve as the basis for a new building project, calls for an upper elementary school and that no current school facility would work for the proposed grade reconfiguration.
Rather than focus on a vote in November, Ahern said the Building Committee should file a Stage I application in August and school officials should consider a new education plan.
"I still believe it is the best chance for success," Ahern said.
Councilor William Aiello, who repeated his vote against endorsing the Stage I application, said that while he is supportive of the town's children he was elected "to look out for the entire town."
Aiello also questioned the School Committee's willingness to work in collaboration with the Town Council, noting the committee agreed to file the Stage I application regardless of whether town officials signed off and that the committee asked its lawyer to research grounds for legal action against the council.
Council President Christopher Duhamel said Friday that Robert Rules, the parliamentary procedure book the council uses to guide its meeting operations, allows for reconsideration of motions that have yet to be adopted. A bid by Aiello to object to the reconsideration on procedural grounds failed by a 4-1 vote with Aiello casting the sole vote in favor. Duhamel, Ahern and Councilor Brian McCuin were opposed. Councilors Caswell Cooke Jr. and Karen Cioffi were unable to attend the special meeting due to prior obligations.
Duhamel said filing the Stage I application would put the town in position to receive reimbursement of 35% to 50% from RIDE.
"It's financially prudent … to protect our taxpayers with the most reimbursement we can get. If we wait we don’t know if it will be available," Duhamel said.