Above: Part of the school construction plan includes a new 1-5 Frenchtown School.
They want the Town Council to support a $150M bond referendum
At the School Building Committee meeting Tuesday morning, members expressed frustration the Town Council might not support the estimated $150 million master plan that would see new schools built at Hanaford and Frenchtown and improvements at Meadowbrook and EGHS. The committee needs the Town Council’s support because the council is the body that will name the dollar amount for a bond referendum to go before voters in November.
At a Town Council meeting earlier this month, some councilors voiced concerns over the project’s possible price tag and the lack of money being allocated for the high school. They will vote on the bond referendum language in August. At the July 11 meeting, Councilman Mike Zarrella said he wanted more money spent on the high school, suggesting that people who will benefit from new elementary schools don’t live in EG yet and people who do live here won’t vote for a plan if they don’t feel they are getting anything out of it.
School Committee member Tim Munoz responded to that thought during the meeting Tuesday.
“This idea that people are so cynical and transactional that if there’s not something in it for them, it’s not worth doing,” he said. “I can’t tell you how wrong I think that is.”
Currently, the project calls for brand new 1-5 schools at Frenchtown and Hanaford ($57 million each), a renovation at Meadowbrook ($16 million) to make it a universal PK-K, and $20 million allocated to renovations at the high school. All of the numbers are estimates, totaling $150 million.
Town Manager Andy Nota, a member of the committee, said it is up to the School Building Committee to “educate” the Town Council in at least one upcoming joint meeting “and get them to a point where they all five agree.” He said he is concerned about what residents will think if the council cannot unanimously agree on a specific referendum number and language for the project. “I think that sends a terrible message to the community that there are questions about the project,” if it passed by a 3-2 or 4-1 margin, he said.
The Town Council approved a not-to-exceed number of $180 million in April in a 3-2 vote. However, Town Council President and Building Committee member Mark Schwager voiced skepticism that the Town Council would approach a number that high and said the panel could come in below the $150 million attached to the project now.
“My appraisal of the situation is that you’re unlikely to get more than $150 million,” Schwager said. “You’re really looking at $130, 140, and $150.” He advised members of the committee to prepare “recommendations at lower levels” when briefing the Town Council.
“When you start to drop below $150 million, I’m going to tell you, you don’t build two new schools,” said Derek Osterman, project manager at Colliers. “At that point, there’s too much risk.”
Osterman said that less money for the project – i.e renovating older buildings instead of building new – would require more flexibility.
Members of the committee debated changes to the plan, which included turning Hanaford’s proposed new building into a renovation with an addition to save money, possibly rerouting funds to the high school. The status of the high school isn’t just a concern of the Town Council. It was a point of community concern at a forum in March. However, changing aspects of the plan could have implications for bonus reimbursements from the state.
East Greenwich will receive a 35 percent reimbursement from the state for school construction projects and could get up to an additional 20 percent of state aid in bonuses if certain criteria are met. Therefore, changing some or all aspects of the plan could potentially put bonus money in jeopardy, leaving EG residents with more of the bill.
In addition to the bonuses, changing the plan would have an educational impact, said EG Supt. Brian Ricca.
“When it comes to teaching and learning, the spaces at our elementary schools are not adequate for the students that are not there now,” Ricca said. He pointed out an additional trailer being delivered to Hanaford for the upcoming school year. Ricca admitted that the educational environment at the high school is not “21st century” but clarified that “we don’t have anybody using closets as workplaces at the high school.”
The Building Committee scheduled a joint meeting with the Town Council to brief them on the plan and answer questions on Wednesday, July 26, at 6 p.m. at a location to be determined.
You can find all of our past articles on the school building project HERE.