Opinion: Let’s Talk About Plan B

by | Nov 3, 2023

By Kurt Matarese

I write to you as someone on the fence for the approaching bond vote, both figuratively and literally, as my property is near the Frenchtown fields. As a parent with two young boys who will benefit from this school system, I support school investment in general as well as taking advantage of the temporary bump in state reimbursement that expires in June 2024. Like many of you, I’ve found myself wondering what an alternate path would even look like, and hoped the town would give residents some reasonable guidance to consider. I think openly discussing considerations for plan B in more detail is prudent instead of just painting a “sky is falling” picture of our alternatives if the bond did not pass. 

While there is a minimalist path that just tackles the roughly $20M+ in deferred maintenance and minor improvements, I think it’s more constructive to illustrate what a revised plan might look like that retains some of the key benefits of the $150M plan while addressing residents’ most repeated concerns. Luckily the building committee has already considered multiple options in detail and has a head start on this process.

Based on those documents and community feedback, a plan that performs renovations and additions as needed at all existing elementary schools as well as the high school might fit. It still addresses the issues of overcrowding, grade alignment, and specialty spaces while maintaining a neighborhood school approach that benefits students and local communities. It also reduces the tax impact, maintains much of the state bonus aid percentage, alleviates traffic concerns, lessens construction impact to neighbors, and provides for a more flexible financial future should the town decide to invest further in the high school or elsewhere. According to past presentations this option could cost anywhere from $50M to $90M before state reimbursement depending on specifics.

To be clear there are challenges. If left open, the capabilities of the Eldredge facility may not be reasonably modifiable to meet the same standards as the other schools – does the benefit of Eldredge being open outweigh that drawback for those local families? Swing space during construction will be more challenging – can this be pulled off with minimal disruption to students? That said, and as echoed many times previously, we have very competent town and school staff who I truly believe can manage these situations well.

The school and town committees have all worked hard over recent years to get the town here and deserve our thanks. They have been open to discussion via email or phone and care deeply about the town. This post is not an attempt to undermine any of their work, but instead seeks to daylight one possible alternative path grounded in previous committee discussions. In the end this should be all about student outcomes, which many would argue are driven by faculty, parents, and the community more than anything, but there is no question the schools need work.

I’m not writing to suggest how you vote, just that you do, and that you make an informed decision that is not based in fear. For more information on what this type of plan might look like, please visit https://egbond.com/planb. Note that this is one of many possible paths and in no way official or guaranteed to happen, but a revision is possible before the upcoming deadline for the bonus state aid. Please stay engaged with your representatives throughout this and future processes.

On a personal note, this is the first time I’ve taken on this level of civic engagement and I’ve been appreciative of all the positive feedback I’ve received. Thank you for reading this.

Kurt Matarese lives in East Greenwich. 

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November 4, 2023 8:56 am

Thank you for showcasing an alternative path towards addressing the identified issues in our schools. Up until recently, communications around this bond conveyed a “now or never” message, implying that if we don’t approve this plan the schools would be left in disrepair. Hopefully we can all find a solution that alleviates the core issues in our schools as well as the concerns raised about a project of this scale.

November 4, 2023 1:09 pm

Thank you for writing and giving insight into other options. I think about all those living around Frenchtown and how they will be impacted by not just construction but mostly traffic. Traffic is already terrible and if we double the size of the school, the roads will be a parking lot before and after school. I’d also liked to see neighborhood schools stay intact.

Kim Edge Ambler
Kim Edge Ambler
November 4, 2023 1:38 pm

Thanks for all this work. Plan B feels like it hits all the major concerns that voters have been voicing in the last year. I appreciate you as a EG citizen donating your time and expertise to help round out communications. I know more postcards arrived today paid for by Build RI. Plan B demonstrates that we can spend less as town, while at the same time delivering a best-in-class neighborhood school model for our youngest children. Research shows that keeping grammar schools under 300 vs 500+ is the gold standard. Disruption to surrounding homes and daily traffic woes would also be less of an issue with this plan. Why would we vote to spend more at the expense of student and community experience?

November 4, 2023 3:17 pm

Thanks Kurt. A very fair and balanced view. It’s important for residents to know the potential alternatives. Especially if there is a path to still meet the 25% incentive deadline if an additional bond vote is presented in June.

Clare Cecil Karb
Clare Cecil Karb
November 4, 2023 4:06 pm

(Posting as my own self and not on behalf of EGSC or EGSD)

Dear Mr Matarese,
It sounds like your civic engagement is in its nascency- inspired by concerns about your own property. Many civic leaders have gotten their start because of something that affected them personally.

But the website that you’ve offered has enough misleading information – including a “Plan B” that seems designed in part to tug at our town’s heartstrings and offer hope that Eldredge might continue to serve as a school. Even with the asterisk that acknowledges the barriers to the plan, the suggestion that 5 million dollars could “fix” and maintain Eldredge is disingenuous. It is not designed to work. It’s designed to erode voters’ enthusiasm for the Master Plan. The tax information on your website is also misleading – perhaps designed to accomplish the same end.

I hope that more people in our town will follow your example by becoming more civically engaged. Our town can only benefit from more resident involvement. Especially if those involved expand their scope of concern and service beyond their own backyard.

That is what makes EG great.

November 5, 2023 4:14 pm

Thank you for the feedback Clare, and thank you for your service to the schools, I mean that sincerely.

Of course the project occurring so close to my property has prompted me to get involved. Please see https://egbond.com/#construction-impact and the studies it references to learn more about why that’s a valid concern. The bar wasn’t high for the town to provide specific assurances to these neighborhoods before the vote, but they weren’t able to.

While I was questioning whether to write this after multiple people suggested the idea, my wife asked: “would you be doing this if we lived in a different part of town?” I decided to move forward because if I were in another voter’s shoes I would want to have all information in front of me so I could make my own informed decision. Pretending Plan B is impossible, non-existent, or sacrifices all of the bonus aid percentage in an effort to convince people to vote for Plan A is disingenuous and undemocratic. It seems some people’s desire to see this pass is undermining those core values, and preventing them from just having a very reasonable and prudent discussion about what happens if this doesn’t pass.

The example Plan B is grounded in an option the building committee had considered. Nowhere on the site does it overstate what can be done for Eldredge if it’s kept open. It’s a trade-off I highlighted in this piece and on the site, and one only the voters can decide on for themselves. The tax information on the site matches the town data sheet, has clear labeling and disclaimers, and also links to Gene’s site. I’ve talked to some of the people who thought there were discrepancies and it turned out they were in some cases using their appraisal value instead of assessment, or comparing to the “delta” on Gene’s site instead of the top line tax bill for the particular year.

I’ll leave you with this bit of information from the 2020 Facilities Condition Assessment done by Colliers in reference to Eldredge, since all we are really talking about in that case is a similar level of work:

“The Colliers inspection team identified fifty-six (56) individual projects related to maintenance repair and regulatory issues across Eldredge Elementary School. The identified cost for the repair of these deficiencies is estimated to be $1.9 million. Each project was assigned a priority based upon its relative urgency of need as judged by the Colliers inspection team. Of the total need, $0.9 million has been deemed High Priority.”

Tanya G
Tanya G
November 4, 2023 5:26 pm

Unsurprisingly, this process has surfaced the usual loud and extremely small chorus of naysayers and do-nothings. If they were in charge, we would never move our community forward. If they were in charge, we would never be the community we are today. They allow the PERFECT (as they conceive it) to be the enemy of the good.  

They are looking for cover because they already know they’re going to vote no. They just want to look like they’re standing up for their kids and the rest of the kids in EG when they are doing the exact opposite. They don’t want to say they’ve already decided to vote “no” on a project that significantly helps our (and their own) children, promotes our community values around education, and sustains our property values.  

While the public had every opportunity to participate, most chose not to. Those some few, now dissenting, individuals who did voice their opinions claim their voices were not heard and are on the fence. They are being disingenuous. What they really mean is that the experts on education and the School Committee heard them but rejected their opinions.  

Their second not-so-subtle attack on the project has taken the form of asking loaded questions and moving the goalposts.  They imply their questions have gone unanswered. Again, they are being disingenuous. They simply don’t like the answers and think they know better than the experts.  They are trying to derail this important project by hiding behind their antics.  

If they know so much and have been so engaged, what will change over the weekend that will determine their vote? Clearly, they have every intention of voting “no” on Tuesday. They want you to think they’re putting thought and effort into their decision. They don’t want you to see who they really are: petty, partisan hacks. 

The School Committee has worked tirelessly and consulted experts throughout this entire process. If people had better ideas, they had to opportunity to submit them. We vote on Tuesday. The proposed bond referendum is the culmination of everyone’s ideas and the best possible solution to meet the needs of our students and community.

The good news is that we have seen this tired political playbook before, and our community has consistently and overwhelmingly rejected it. I am confident that we will do so again on Tuesday.

Eugene Quinn
November 5, 2023 9:08 am

Kurt, thanks for putting this together. I lived here for 40 years before I became engaged in community issues, you are way ahead of me.

Regarding the items on your bond debate page, I would like to comment on the “Tax increases” and “Town will be stretched thin” items.

Tax Increases:
Regardless of what happens with the bond, over the long term the tax rate will decrease. The 4% levy cap virtually guarantees this because assessed property value (what you divide the levy by to get the tax rate) historically has increased more than 4% per year. The 100-year growth rate (from 1922 to 2022) is 7.2%, and the 30-year growth rate (1992 to 2022) is 5%.

If revaluation increases our total assessed property value by 20% next year (which is highly likely), the tax rate will fall below $20 (in the calculation of education aid, the state bumped our $2.5 billion “Assessed Value” to $3 billion “Full Value” for just this reason).

It is a common misconception that there is a direct relationship between expenditures and the tax rate. In 1964 we authorized school construction bonds equivalent to more than $360 million, at a time when the tax rate was $38. The following year, the tax rate fell to $26, and at the next revaluation, with most of that debt still on the books, it fell to $23.70. Ninety percent of the movement in the tax rate is a result of revaluations and the boom-and-bust real estate market. If you filter out these effects, the tax rate has been in the $20-$26 range for most of the last century.

I have posted some analysis showing how our tax rate compares to other cities and towns.

Changes in spending, even ones that seem large, have little effect on the tax rate.
With $3 billion in assessed value, $1 on the tax rate produces $3 million in revenue. So to move the tax rate down $1, you have to cut $3 million from expenses, and to move it up $1, you have to add $3 million. None of the options on the table are likely to move the tax rate $3 in either direction.

Town will be stretched thin
As noted above, the revaluation is likely to add at least $500 million to our assessed value, giving us an additional $15 million in borrowing capacity. There will be another revaluation in 2028, and a $10 million school bond will roll off in 2029. This will probably give us enough breathing room.

One other aspect of the education aid computation is that our median family income, which has been the highest in the state for a while, is starting to pull away from the rest of the state. According to the most recent census, our population is 14,573 and our per capita annual income is $71,096. This works out to just over $1 billion in income per year. So assuming our good credit allows us to borrow $67.5 million on terms favorable enough that the total debt service does not exceed $150 million, we are talking about ½ of 1% of our income over the 30 year life of the bond. Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish.

November 5, 2023 1:16 pm
Reply to  Eugene Quinn

Thanks Gene, the thoughtful and well-researched analysis is appreciated.

One point on the “stretched thin” bullet — the town talked to a bond consultant in August who noted that the town would potentially have limited borrowing capacity without impacting their credit rating for a time after taking on this debt (more headroom builds up as debt starts to be paid off of course). I do trust the town can make this work operationally, but think it is reasonable to say taking on more debt limits flexibility and what you can do beyond normal operations for some time. As with most things, it’s just a consideration, not a guarantee it will limit anything specific.

November 6, 2023 7:30 pm

So … EG tax payers will now be paying for pre K programs if this bond goes thru?
Or will Meadowbrook be a pre school option for parents to pay for if they send their kiddos

How will this affect Little Red Hen, Sweet Peas, Happy Hearts or any of the other EG pre school

Elizabeth McNamara
November 6, 2023 7:46 pm
Reply to  Barbara

EGSD already has a relatively small pre-K program that serves students with special needs as well as peer models. There has been some discussion at the state level of mandating pre-K; that has not happened yet.

November 7, 2023 9:28 am
Reply to  Barbara

The state is THINKING about making preK free for all and has to be made available by the school districts. This is all just talk. There is no solid plan that this will even happen. So we could be spending our tax money to renovate something we will possibly not even need. No one is 100 or even 50% sure about this plan of Prek. Right now if you are a peer helper at meadowbrooke you pay to send your child there.

If that does happen you have to assume it will absolutely negatively impact all preschool businesses you mentioned. Without a doubt. That will be the natural change of that business.


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