This article was edited at 11:18 a.m. and about 3:20 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2019 to correct errors regarding the total voter turnout. The errors were caused by incorrect information supplied to The Sun. The new version also provides an update with the most current vote tallies available from the state Board of Elections.
WESTERLY — Voters rejected, by a 454 vote margin on Thursday, a proposed school building project that called for borrowing up to $71.4 million to build a new elementary school, renovate two other elementary schools and improve Westerly High and Westerly Middle School.
The rejection Thursday came despite a pledge from the Rhode Island School Building Authority to reimburse at least 35% of the cost of the project and interest (estimated at $42.4 million at a 4% rate) and up to 50% of the total cost and interest as long as the project met all of the goals it was designed to meet.
Slightly more than 21% or 3,924 of 18,595 eligible voters participated in the special referendum which also included thee ballot questions proposing changes to the Town Charter.
The result of the vote on the school project was a devastating blow for those who worked on developing the project for nearly three years.
“It’s disappointing … but I appreciate all the support we did have. We did our job getting the word out. The turnout shows that and shows the community is engaged,” said Gina Fuller, co-chairwoman of the School Committee’s Building Subcommittee.
The schools remain in need of work, Fuller said.
"I hope the people who worked so hard to defeat this project step up and come up with another plan. It’s unfortunate the community will have to pay more and get less," Fuller said.
The elementary school portion of the project would have completed Vision 2020, the long-range education facilities initiative the town embarked on in 2001. The plan led to the construction of Westerly Middle School, which opened in 2005, and to $30 million worth of work at Westerly High School that was completed in 2010.
Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, School Committee chairwoman, said the project would have had long-term ramifications.
"Obviously today’s vote is pivotal and affects not only Westerly Public Schools but the entire community both present and future. A great deal of effort and expense went into planning for both this referendum and the one that very narrowly failed in 2016," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
She called for a quick response to the vote. "We will need to immediately form a new team and develop a plan that the community can support. We would solicit community input and expertise to do just that. The most pressing task, in my opinion, is to remove our students and staff from State Street as the 2016 referendum would have allowed for," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
"Regardless of the today’s result, I look forward to continuing to serve the students and taxpayers of Westerly as I have for the last seven years. There are many incredible things happening on a daily basis within Westerly Public Schools.”
Voters on Thursday also considered three changes to the Town Charter. A proposal to abolish term limits for members of the Town Council failed by a 2,904 – 948 vote.
The second charter change, approved by a 2,853 - 930 vote, moves the date of submission for the proposed municipal budget from the town manager to the finance board to the third Monday in March from the the third Monday in February. The third question, approved 2,870 - 917, changes the date for submission of the proposed education budget by the superintendent of schools to the municipal finance director from no later than the first Monday in February to the first Monday in March.
The vote followed an intense campaign leading up to Thursday's special referendum waged with lawn signs, social and traditional media debates and diatribes, and letters to the editor. Both sides accused the other of misleading the public and acting in bad faith, and observers worried the project had sharply divided the town.
In their calmer moments, opponents said the project was too expensive, and some questioned the educational value of the plan. Proponents said the project would have resulted in well-appointed school facilities that would not need major work for several years. They also said the project would help improve student learning and achievement.
It was the second proposed school building project to fail since November 2016, when voters rejected, 5,317 - 4,814, a $38.5 million elementary school redesign plan that called for renovating the Bradford, Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools and eventually closing State Street School. The Bradford School has since been taken off line as a school and the building was turned over to the town by school officials.
The plan that voters rejected on Thursday would have resulted in moving the town's Grade 5 students out of Westerly Middle School and into a brand new State Street School for Grades 3-5 and reconfiguring and renovating Dunn's Corners and Springbrook schools as early learning centers for the Pre-K to Grade 2 population. Renovations, safety improvements and security upgrades would have also occurred at Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School.