Council Weighs School Construction Ballot Question Details

by | Jul 11, 2023

How precise or flexible should the bond referendum language be? 

The East Greenwich Town Council discussed the school construction plan during their Monday meeting before next month’s decision on specifying a bond referendum number and language that will appear on the November ballot.

In April, the council approved a $180 million bond cap in a 3-2 vote, but can decide on any number on or below that $180M for EG residents to vote on. The council must submit the ballot question to the Board of Elections by mid-September,” said EG Town Manager Andy Nota. 

One of the challenges the council faces in coming up with a number are things like fluctuating construction costs and the potential for bonus money provided by the state. 

East Greenwich has a 35 percent reimbursement rate from the state for school construction projects. Due to recent legislation passed on the state level, EG can seek an additional 20 percent in reimbursement “bonuses,” which had previously been capped at 17.5 percent, according to Manuel Cordero, educational facility planner and consultant on the school construction project.

In briefing the committee, Cordero mentioned that some bonuses, like addressing health and safety concerns and educational needs, are “easy ones,” he said, “if it’s possible to say there are bonuses that are easy to target.” He later mentioned a bonus that addresses overcrowding in schools, an issue EG elementary schools currently face.

“It’s important to me that we’re presenting both the cost and where the money is being spent,” said Town Council Vice President Mike Donegan. He questioned whether the town should package the entirety of the school construction project in its application to the state Department of Education (RIDE) or break them up into each building.

Nota responded by saying that compartmentalizing the project might jeopardize the bonus eligibility because each school might be seen to have different needs.

“We want as large a [reimbursement] number, as close to 55 percent if not 55,” Nota said. 

Regarding Dongean’s concern that voters need to understand where the money is being spent, Nota said, “I think there’s a number of ways in the next several weeks that we can formulate a few different question models that the council could contemplate whether or not you’re comfortable with in terms of achieving the end result of dollar amount and result on the project.”

Town Council member Renu Englehart asked if specific funds allocated to specific schools during the construction project could limit the ability for a contractor to fix something like a “mechanical issue” that becomes obvious later. This question stems from specifically allocated funds for each school laid out in “Plan C,” which was adopted in April by the School Committee.

“We’re going to ensure that we’ll have enough flexibility built into the question,” Nota said. “As a voter, you need to understand what you’re going to hypothetically spend $150 million on.” He went on to say that the key is to provide voters with “confidence.”

A worry about the bond passing was that only $20 million is slated for the high school. 

“As far as the bond passing, we have to give people a reason to vote for it, and a lot of people vote on self-interest,” Town Council member Michael Zarrella said. “If your kids are past elementary school age, and nothing is going to the high school or the upper grades, they might vote against it for that reason.” Zarrella couched his comments by saying that he does not think “we should neglect the elementary schools.”

The money allocated for the high school would address the most egregious issues, including special education and art spaces, the locker rooms and the auditorium. The high school’s entrance and front office area was renovated 11 years ago. The science wing and the library have been updated since then. 

“Given that we can’t remedy everything, what are our priorities?” asked Town Council President Mark Schwager. “The School Building Committee, our project manager, and our educational consultants have prioritized the need. So, that’s the project before us.”

One of the bonuses the district is aiming for in its plan is for “newer and fewer,” which would be achieved by decommissioning Eldredge, building two new elementary schools for grades 1 through 5 in place of the current Hanaford and Frenchtown schools and renovating Meadowbrook to serve pre-K and kindergarten.

Donegan asked, however, if it would really be “newer and fewer” since the Eldredge building would continue to be either the responsibility of the school district or the town. 

“Do we know what the schools are doing with Eldredge?” he said.

“I am not sure the town or the school can answer that question today and it would cloud the issue,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing to have a building available.”

He noted that Eldredge would need to be used as swing space until 2030 during the construction of the other schools. Nota said any needed renovations at Eldredge could be done over time, adding, “I think in the long term, there will be a savings there but it doesn’t come off the books.”

The School Building Committee will meet next on July 18 to discuss “priorities that they will be able to articulate for the council” ahead of the Town Council finalizing the referendum language in August, said Nota.

With some reporting by Elizabeth McNamara.

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