Community Forums take place March 21
Town Manager Andy Nota wants East Greenwich residents to be able to judge the school building plans on their merits and on the facts – something he said he has not been seeing and hearing. He took time at last week’s Town Council meeting to clarify five aspects of the project he said were being misconstrued or misunderstood.
First, he outlined what the Town Council is looking to do by the end of the month, which is to approve a “not-to-exceed” dollar amount for a bond referendum question that would go to voters in November. The not-to-exceed number may not be what the council will end up voting to put on the bond referendum. Rather, it would be the highest dollar amount they could approve.
There are still a lot of unknowns – after getting more input, the School Building Committee could decide it wants to phase the project, so they would seek a lower dollar amount. Or perhaps the committee will want to take advantage of the possible 50 percent state reimbursement and go big. The vote the council takes at its meeting March 27 is on a not-to-exceed amount. What goes to voters won’t be finalized until sometime in August to get on the Nov. 7 ballot.
“I could say that 100 times … it’s still lost on a lot of people that they are two completely different exercises,” said Nota, referring to the March and August Town Council votes.
The second issue was what Nota said had been a narrative he’d heard about the School Department since he was hired: that it was unable to efficiently manage a project of this magnitude.
“My response is, I don’t know where that narrative came from,” he said, noting that it seemed to have existed for decades even though all the players from even 10 years ago, on both the town and school side, are different.
“There is a very clear process that a community follows [for school construction]. The Town of East Greenwich, the municipal side, manages the finances … in coordination with the schools, as this is a major school initiative. The town will have key members on the construction committee…. This is not just a school project. This is going to have an effect on the entire community. We are actively engaged. I’m hoping we can turn that narrative.
Nota gave the recent turf field replacement at the high school as an example of positive town-school collaboration. “We feel very good about the turf field replacement. It was a small project but there was tremendous collaboration. We managed the money, the project had a good outcome, it was done in a timely fashion, on budget,” he said, adding, “There’s no question that we can do the same thing with a project that’s $100 million.
The third point, said Nota, was about finances, pushing back against the idea that costs have ballooned in recent months. That will be easier to see once the town unveils a website that will include all the information collected by the school building committee since 2020 – in a couple of weeks.
“When it comes to cost, you’ll be able to see that the building committee has been looking at costs back in 2020 that went as low as $40 million range to as high as $230 million – from rehabilitation [of all schools] to replacing the high school and other schools,” he said. There was a study done in 2020 that looked at fixing things; it did not take into account educational needs, space constraints and state requirements for projects that want to be eligible for reimbursement.
“When you look at a district like ours, with five [older] buildings – the high school built from 1969, Eldredge at 96 years old, Hanaford 64 years, Frenchtown 59 years, and Meadowbrook 54 years old…. There’s no question costs are going to be extremely disparate,” he said. “The building committee from as far back as three years ago has dealt with a $200 million swing, from $50 million to $250 million. Not surprisingly, we’re getting to the end and we’re closing the gap. The committee – not to say the Council or the School Committee will support it – is in the $100 million to $130 million range and you are starting to see a plan coming together. Whether it’s supported or not, that’s just the due diligence of the committee.”
Nota’s fourth point was about Eldredge Elementary School, noting that the building committee had not been looking at an option to keep it as a school. “It’s not a final decision,” he said (the building committee is advisory), “but we were provided … cost estimates, all different kinds of costs estimates. Some were for maintenance only.”
The cost to rehabilitate Eldredge is estimated at around $25 million to meet the state requirements. But in meeting those state requirements, the school would no longer be able to house the nearly 300 students it houses today. Instead, it would only be able to accommodate around 150 students, or one class per grade.
“Now you are investing in the largest, oldest, most expensive facility to manage,” said Nota. “You’re putting some money into it and preserving it as a school but for about half the number of students you have there today. You’re investing that amount on 150 students. I’m not championing one way or another. These are just the facts.”
Nota also spoke of demographic trends, observing that most regional communities are losing school age populations. “We’re not losing students yet,” he said, suggesting the trend is clear that EG will lose students. “Do we start to become more efficient and consolidate?”
The fifth and final point Nota wanted to make had to do with what’s happening in other Rhode Island school districts and the difficulty in comparing different districts.
How come a new elementary school in North Providence is $30 million to $40 million and our estimate is more than $50 million, Nota asked. Because, he said, North Providence’s elementary schools are smaller, accommodating 250 to 300 students versus the 500 planned for the 1-5 schools East Greenwich is considering.
Barrington is the best comparison, even though they have around 800 more students.
“They were looking to touch five schools. They had a bond referendum for about $100 million to $130M, [including] one new school, 3-5,” he said. But Barrington has pivoted away from that plan because they only just started paying off the debt for their $70 million middle school. In the end, said Nota, it’s difficult to compare EG against other districts. “Every district evolved differently. Every district is maintained differently,” he said.
Nota said he hoped community forums (including one Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. at Cole Middle School) would help dispel some of the misinformation he sees in the community. And he said the new website will be helpful as well.
“It’s troubling when you have such an important issue when it’s being interpreted and managed differently by different groups,” he said.
Find the agenda and Zoom link for the March 21 Community Forum at Cole HERE. A second community-wide forum is scheduled for March 30 at 5:30 p.m. at Cole. Additional school PTG-based forums are also being held; find the calendar HERE.