standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council narrowly approved sending a proposed $71.4 million school building project along for a second-phase review by the state Department of Education.

The council voted 4-3 to authorize Town Manager J. Mark Rooney to send a letter notifying the state education department that the council approved of the project receiving the next phase of review. Councilors Christopher Duhamel, Suzanne Giorno, Caswell Cooke Jr., and Brian McCuin voted in favor. Councilors Karen Cioffi, William Aiello and Sharon Ahern were opposed.

The councilors who voted in favor of sending the project along for the next level of review said they wanted to learn the reimbursement rate that will be assigned if the state Department of Education approves the project. The reimbursement rate could only be learned if RIDE approves the second-stage application. Opponents said the project is simply too expensive.

Duhamel voiced concerns, despite voting to send the project to the next stage of review. The cost of the project, he said, includes money for what he called “deferred maintenance.” “To have all of that come in one shot ... I don’t see how that can be absorbed in the 2020 budget,” Duhamel said.

In the coming weeks and months, Duhamel said, he anticipates the School Committee working with the Town Council to “look at options ... what can be deferred? Is there a swing school that can be used like Bradford?” he said.

School officials are optimistic that the project will qualify for 50 percent reimbursement from the state, meaning the effect of the principal bond amount on local taxpayers would be about $35 million. Local taxpayers would also pay about half of the interest associated with borrowing for the project at a 50 percent reimbursement rate. On the low end, the project is believed to qualify for at least a 35 percent reimbursement rate.

The project calls for razing the current State Street School and replacing it with a new $41.9 million building to house all of the district’s Grades 3 to 5 students. Dunn’s Corners School would undergo $10.2 million in renovations, reconfiguration and additions, and $3.48 million in renovations, reconfiguration and additions are planned for Springbrook School.

The Tower Street School Community Center would be renovated with $206,587 to prepare it for use as temporary quarters for students during construction. Additionally, $4.2 million in improvements at Babcock Hall and $9.3 million in improvements at Ward Hall would be made. An additional $1.9 million in districtwide improvements would also be made.

Aiello said the School Building Committee failed to effectively engage the public as it worked to devise plans for the project. He also called for consideration of other needs in the town, such as making improvements to the senior center and adding housing for senior citizens. “This process should be stopped or paused,” Aiello said.

Funding by the state will be available again next year and possibly in 2021, giving the town time to submit a new project, Aiello said.

Ahern questioned the financial feasability and said officials should consider the project’s effect on the tax rate as well as more routine expenses and both the annual schools and municipal budgets. The school building project might also interfere with other needs, such as those identified in the town’s master plan for recreation facilities.

Giorno, who made the motion to approve having Rooney send a letter to RIDE, said she was focused on gathering data about the project and its effects.

“I wanted to get as much information about the plan in order to make the right decision ... at this point I don’t think it’s right of me to not find out the number,” Giorno said.

Once local officials learn the reimbursement rate, they can return to consideration of the project and “work together to find the right answer,” Giorno said.

Caswell Cooke said funds in the project for the high school should probably be removed, and he called on school officials to submit more reasonable annual budgets to reflect a decline in enrollment.

After the council’s vote, Gina Fuller, co-chair of the School Building Committee, said the council’s discussion revealed a need for the committee to continue explaining the project, it’s cost and how it would be paid for over time. Once the committee receives a reimbursement rate, Fuller said decisions can be made to help reduce the impact of the project on the town’s operating budget in any given year.

Ultimately, Fuller said, she would like to see the project go in front of the town’s voters. “I think it would be shortsighted not to put it in front of the voters. To assume that the last one failed because of cost would be a mistake,” Fuller said.

Instead, Fuller said, she believes the $38.5 million project defeated by voters in 2016 went down because it called for closing State Street School despite its location in the most heavily populated part of the town.

“I’m happy that four of the councilors thought it was important to move the project forward to RIDE to find out what the reimbursement rate will be,” Fuller said.

Christine Cooke, the building committee’s other co-chair, said she believed the Town Council had done its job by approving submission of the project for the next round of review.

“And the Building Committee and the School Committee’s job is to develop a project that is educationally sound. We did our job, but the plans come with a cost,” Cooke said.

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