By Aiza Shaikh
The EGSD Building Committee last week voted unanimously, 9-0, to recommend decommissioning Eldredge Elementary as a school as part of the town’s most significant school construction plan since the building of a new Cole Middle School in 2011.
As an advisory committee – consisting of a chair, two Town Council members, one community member, one School Committee member and school administrators – the Building Committee can only recommend items to bring to the School Committee for consideration.
Before deciding on Eldredge’s decommission, committee members reviewed alternative plans that would allow Eldredge to still be used as a school building. This was partly by design but also, according to officials, because of some residents’ concerns that the building has important historic significance as a school.
Alternate plans included leaving the existing building as is, adding on to the building in two different ways, and demolishing the existing building while constructing a new one on the field (instead of doing that on the Frenchtown site).
Renovating the building to reach 21st century standards would be costly because of its historic nature and the site might need a lot of remediation. Its location in the middle of a neighborhood also would make major construction more challenging. In addition, renovations would mean vacating the building for a long period of time.
“Renovations and additions to historic structures come at a cost premium,” said Philip Conte, president of StudioJAED, the architecture firm working on the project. “Maybe there’d be some modifications to the bus drop-off and parent drop-off/parking because of the large additions, but . . . we’re almost doubling the size of the existing building. This is not a typical approach to this type of project.”
Conte also noted that old buildings like Eldredge “were never meant to be added onto.”
“[The Eldredge building] has lived its life,” Conte said. “It is still useful, but not as a school and certainly not as a school that would require this extent of intervention.”
An advantage to building a new Eldredge school would be that the existing building could continue to operate while construction (on the field) was going on – much like the plan for Frenchtown School, since it would be built where fields currently is. However, the size of the new building would limit outdoor space for community use. Plus, that plan would involve demolishing the current Eldredge building.
“There are more disadvantages than advantages here,” said Conte. “The available site that you would have after a new construction on the adjacent lot is limited. Any new construction also does impact the historical context of East Greenwich and this area by demolishing the existing building.”
A community member attending the meeting asked if the committee considered renovating Eldredge as a pre-K to kindergarten school to alleviate the numbers of students in the elementary schools.
In response, construction coordinator Manuel Cordero Alvarado said there would be issues with accessibility, and that the committee is “thinking about early childhood in general, across the district.”
Committee Chair Alyson Powell said she thought community members’ wishes to keep Eldredge as a school has to do with its historic significance.
“I can’t say for sure but I would imagine that much of the concern about Eldredge being taken offline is because of its historic nature, the character, [and] the fact that we have the field as a community resource,” Powell said.
Powell also suggested the community come up with alternate ideas for the building’s use.
“I just know that a lot of the concern about Eldredge is that it is literally in the heart of the community,” Powell added. “I think there will be many people who are disappointed if it is no longer a school. I think we may need to take it upon ourselves – with the cooperation of our Town Council members, our town manager, community groups, parent organizations – to try to at least come up with some ideas of what this building could be moving forward.”
The committee vote to recommend decommissioning Eldredge as a school is just a recommendation to the Town Council. The group has no formal power. The recommendation would go to the Town Council, which alone has the power to approve projects involving bond referenda.
The committee also discussed the proposed construction of a new Frenchtown school, which would cover grades 3-5.
Under the proposal, which is still just a proposal, the new school would be built behind the current building, with the fields moving from behind the school to the front instead (after the old building was demolished).
Meadowbrook and Hanaford would also be renovated, and Hanaford would become a K-2 school like Meadowbrook.
As the only 3-5 school in the district, Frenchtown’s population would double from 300 to 600.
At the meeting, Conte encouraged community members to ask questions if they are worried about a single building housing as many as 600 students.
“A 600-student elementary school is not big in other areas of the country, even in Rhode Island,” said Conte. “I would encourage those concerned [to] ask that question so that we can maybe reply with some examples of where that has been successfully overcome.”
Conte called Frenchtown “the most advantageous site in terms of building new construction while limiting disruption,” since students could continue to go to school in the original Frenchtown School during construction.
“We take those available fields and move them down to the front of the school at the roadside,” he said. “That area is going to become a great community resource for a lot of field use and activities.”
The committee members also acknowledged that transportation is an issue that they intend to address at the next scheduled meeting.
“We know that traffic and transportation are a major concern and we are going to do everything in our power to try to get that information to disseminate to this group,” Powell said.
Editor’s note: Nothing has been decided yet. That has to be done by the School Committee and then approved by the Town Council, in terms of the dollar figure. Community input is welcome. You can reach Alyson Powell at [email protected].
Aiza Shaikh, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut and Class of 2021 EGHS alum, has been an EG resident since 2008. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and eating coffee ice cream.
Photo by Ray Johnson