This is an exciting time for our community — especially for the students and staff of the Westerly Public Schools! After spending countless hours over the course of nearly two years, Westerly has a comprehensive plan to address the substandard conditions of our aging school facilities and enhance the educational experience of our students, thanks to the diligent work of the Building Committee. As we learned this week, there’s a major incentive to dive in this work now. Westerly will receive 52.5% reimbursement from the state on the $74.28 million completed project, which includes a 5-year capital plan.
This is an exciting time, but it is also unsettling. Unsettling because after the Westerly School Committee and the Building Committee have worked hard to educate our town leaders on all aspects of this opportunity, it’s unclear if there is support from the seven members of the Town Council to move this project forward and allow our community an opportunity to weigh in at the voting booth.
While the Westerly School Committee has fulfilled the responsibility to develop and approve an educationally sound plan with the expert guidance provided by the members and consultants of the Building Committee, members of the Town Council have been rightly focused on their responsibility regarding the issue of affordability. Based on the financial projections prepared by the Town Finance Director and presented to the council, the $71.48 million project has a similar impact on the tax levy over the next seven years when compared to a suggestion from the council to study the impact of a $38 million “maintenance only” plan. This is because the reimbursements from the state, which the Building Committee have studied and capitalized on to the benefit of Westerly’s taxpayers and students, are incentivizing districts that invest in long-term plans with vision, educational enhancements, health and safety improvements and a “newer and fewer” focus. Comparing the current plan with sweeping improvements to facilities and educational experiences to a “maintenance only” plan, the question is: how can we afford to pass on this opportunity?
I respectfully ask the Town Council to embrace this opportunity. Let the community have a voice and let the community decide if the difference is worth it. Put the question to the voters of our community.
The writer is a member of the Westerly School Committee.