Editor's Note: This is the final article in a series about the Westerly school building project, which will be on the ballot Oct. 10.
WESTERLY — By this time next week the fate of the proposed school building project, in development for more than two years, should be clear.
Voters will head to one of two polling places Thursday to say yes or no to Question 1: Should the town issue up to $71,410,000 in bonds to support a project that would bring completion of the community's Vision 2020 initiative and provide an update to other school buildings.
Plans call for building a brand new State Street Elementary School on the site of the current one for use by the town's students in Grades 3-5. Dunn's Corners Elementary and Springbrook Elementary schools would be updated for use as early learning centers for the Pre-K to Grade 2 population. The two buildings would also receive mechanical upgrades. Westerly High School's Babcock and Ward halls and Westerly Middle School would all receive mechanical and security upgrades.
In the final days leading to the vote proponents and opponents of the project seem to find little ground for agreement. Both sides have accused the other of influencing the decision to limit the number of polling places to just two. Similarly, prognosticators come down on both sides — some saying the limited number of polling places will surely lead to passage of the project, while others are certain that with just two places to vote the project faces certain failure.
Discussions by the Board of Canvassers, before its decision to go with two polling places, focused on the board's budget and past turnout for special referendums in off election years. "In the past we only had two polling places because of very low turnout," the board's chairman, Joseph Olean, said during the board's July 9 meeting.
The polling places will be the Venice Restaurant at 165 Shore Road, and Faith Bible Chapel, 115 Ashaway Road (Route 3). Hours are from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Venice is for voters who normally vote in Precincts 3601 (Bradford Citizens Club), 3603 (State Street School), 3604 (Venice Restaurant), and 3605 (Westerly Middle School). The Bible Chapel is for voters in Precincts 3602 (Westerly High School), 3606 (Springbrook School), and 3607 (Faith Bible).
The Vision 2020 Long Range Facilities Plan was issued in December 2001. The original $56 million plan, which changed both in scope and cost over time, called for construction of a new middle school, which opened in 2005, and led to $30 million worth of work at Westerly High School. The plan also called for $19 million worth of renovations to five elementary schools. The number of elementary schools has dwindled with the closing of the Tower Street and Bradford Elementary Schools. The Tower Street property remains under the School Committee's control and has been designated for use as swing space if voters approve the project on Thursday.
The complete proposed building project would see $75.2 million worth of work accomplished. The state has pledged to reimburse at least 35% and up to 50% of eligible parts of the project, including interest on the borrowing, which is estimated to be about $42 million. State reimbursement aid at 35% is expected to be about $29.57 million; at 50% it would rise to $45.89 million.
Members of the School Committee's Building Subcommittee have said they are confident the project will attain 50% reimbursement as long as the project is completed in accord with plans already approved by the state Department of Education.
The project under consideration grew out of meetings, forums, focus groups and surveys that started not long after voters rejected, by about 500 votes, a $38.5 million redesign bond in November 2016. That project would have resulted in closure of State Street Elementary School and renovations and additions to Bradford, Dunnn's Corners, and Springbrook schools.