Above: Mark Schwager (second from left) and Alyson Powell (second from right) announce their joint agreement on the $150 million school construction project.
Panel heads announce agreement at joint session
The sparring for control of $150 million to improve local schools took a turn towards reconciliation Monday night as Council President Mark Schwager and School Committee Chair Alyson Powell announced their respective panels had come to an agreement over the composition of a school construction committee to oversee the voter-approved $150 million construction project.
The actual contents of that compromise have not been made public.
The announcement (joint statement on school construction) came at the start of a joint session at Swift Community Center to begin work on the budget for fiscal year 2025.
The rapprochement comes after the Town Council on Jan. 29 voted 4-1 against approving the long-worked-on “stage 2” construction plan to stop the state Department of Education from ruling on a request submitted by EGSD Supt. Brian Ricca, on behalf of the School Committee, seeking a “declaratory order,” determining that the School Committee had ultimate control over the $150 million project.
The “no” vote on stage 2 threatened the feasibility of the entire project since both the Town Council and the School Committee need to approve the stage 2 before it is submitted to RIDE and they need to get it in by Feb. 15 to be eligible for up to 20 percent in additional reimbursements. Under existing legislation, the reimbursement will return to the standard 35 percent for projects submitted after Feb. 15.
Ricca submitted the request after school officials saw the first draft of a Town Council ordinance to establish a school construction committee. That draft called for two members from the Town Council but only one member of the School Committee to sit on the construction panel. In addition, the Town Council was the entity in that draft that would be signing contracts.
In the last big project paid for by a voter-approved bond – $50 million for construction of a new Cole Middle School, as well as a rebuilt entrance at the high school and a number of smaller improvements districtwide – then School Committee Chair Jean Ann Guiliano signed the contracts and one member of the Town Council and one member of the School Committee sat on the school construction committee. Find the charge and fiscal management agreement for the 2009 committee here: Building Committee Charge (2009).
Language from RIDE gives responsibility to the School Committee, saying it has the “sole and exclusive responsibility for all aspects of a proposed and/or approved project from its inception, including engaging all necessary and appropriate personnel for design, construction and oversight….”
Town Council members have argued they promised voters they would be in charge and Town Manager Andy Nota said language in the General Assembly legislation authorizing the town to put a bond referendum on the ballot spelled that control out: “The projects shall be carried out and all contracts made therefor on behalf of the town by the town council or the town council may delegate such authority to the school building committee, the school construction committee or the town school committee.”
Nota has also argued the $150 million project is so big – the biggest ever undertaken by the town – that more town involvement would be prudent.
With as much as $30 million (that additional 20 percent reimbursement) on the line, both panels sought to find consensus late last week and through the weekend. According to the joint statement made Monday, they each deputized one member – Mike Donegan for the Town Council and Alyson Powell for the School Committee – to find a compromise.
The Town Council will take up the stage 2 plan again at a special session Thursday, Feb. 8. Find the agenda for that meeting HERE (Editor’s note: the meeting date and time have been revised since this story first posted). It will hold the second reading of the construction committee ordinance at its regular meeting Monday, Feb. 12 – the second reading will include a public hearing. (An ordinance must have three readings by the Town Council before it is voted on.)
Meanwhile, Supt. Brian Ricca said Tuesday he had sent this message to RIDE Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green earlier that day:
“Given the fact that the East Greenwich Town Council and East Greenwich School Committee are negotiating next steps for our Master Plan, I would like to hold the Request for a Declaratory Order in abeyance while those conversations move forward.”
In the joint session read Monday, Schwager and Powell acknowledged “there are likely to be some disputes” in a project as big as this, but added, “… our community is capable of doing big things, as long as we work together to maintain the public’s trust.”
Editor’s note: The information from Supt. Ricca was added Feb. 6 at 9 p.m.