Town Council slams query; puts brakes on state construction application
Supt. Brian Ricca last week asked the state Department of Education (RIDE) to declare that the School Committee and not the Town Council “has ultimate control over the scope and direction” of the $150 million school construction project approved by voters in November.
The “Request for Declaratory Order” letter was sent to RIDE on Jan. 23 with no prior notification to the Town Council (find the letter here: Declaratory Order Request 1/23/24).
The Town Council, which learned of the request Thursday, expressed their disappointment and anger during their meeting Monday night. (Find a recording of the meeting HERE – the relevant section comes 2 hours, 31 minutes in.)
“This is an unforced error,” said Councilor Caryn Corenthal. “This council has supported the bond. I said we would be fiscally responsible. We consistently reaffirmed our control.”
“This was something that could have been avoided,” said Councilor Renu Englehart. “The fact that this wasn’t even noticed to us … I find completely irresponsible. We campaigned on this … that the town would control the bond. However, I remain hopeful that some resolution will be made.”
One question that came up last night was timing. Specifically, why did the School Committee decide to seek the ruling now, just two weeks before the deadline to submit a “stage 2” application to RIDE? That application lays out how the bond money will be spent and seeks confirmation from RIDE that the town will get the up to 55 percent reimbursement officials are hoping for. It requires “yes” votes from both the School Committee and the Town Council.
The council voted 4-1 Monday night to deny the stage 2 application “without prejudice,” meaning they can take it up again. If the town misses the Feb. 15 deadline, they will have to wait until Sept. 15 to submit the stage 2 and they would have missed the deadline for the extra 20 percent in reimbursements (resulting in the loss of millions of dollars).
“Nary a chirp about it,” said Councilman Mike Donegan about the lack of communication about this leading up to the letter to RIDE. “We had endless conversations … that we would run the money and we came up with this language. Only now, at the 11th hour as we are about to vote, is it challenged.”
Town Solicitor Peter Skwirz, Town Manager Andy Nota and Donegan all questioned whether or not RIDE even had any power to weigh in on this issue, since it was the General Assembly that gave the Town Council the authority to put a bond referendum on the ballot. The Town Council is the only town entity that can issue bonds.
In Ricca’s letter, he quotes from the legislation allowing the Town of East Greenwich to bond up to $180 million for school construction (the Town Council opted for $150 million bond referendum), which says, “the projects shall be carried out and all contracts made therefore 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 to the town school committee.”
The letter states the Town Council is relying on that language to “exert improper control” over the school building project, citing the council’s decision to establish a new school building construction committee.
Ricca is referring to an ordinance put before the Town Council on Monday, Jan. 22, that would establish that committee. The council heard the first reading of the ordinance at that meeting. All ordinances get three readings, with the second reading being a public hearing. Here’s a copy of the draft ordinance presented Jan. 22: School Construction Committee draft ordinance 1-19-24.
In the letter to RIDE, Ricca wrote, “Through the Town Council’s proposed charge, the School Committee is rendered an afterthought – to be kept informed of progress, but given no authority to provide for and resolve what it determines to be the educational needs of the School Department.”
By state law, school committees are responsible for “the entire care, control, and management of all public school interests.”
On Tuesday, School Committee Chair Alyson Powell said Ricca acted under his own authority “on advice of counsel,” adding, “It’s not a decision that I or the School Committee made.”
Committee member Kevin Murphy, who co-chairs the current School Building Committee with Powell, said this via email: “I have no comments at this time, except that I truly believe this matter will be resolved in a proper and timely manner.”
School Committee members Tim Munoz and Clare Cecil-Karb declined to comment; member Nicole Bucka said media requests should go to Supt. Ricca first (editors note: we mischaracterized Nicole’s respond in the original post; we regret the error). Member Will Hangan did not respond to a request for comment in time for this posting.
Monday night via email, committee member Gene Quinn said, “Everyone wants this important building project to get done and hopefully we can resolve the differences that were apparent tonight.”
Quinn said he learned of Ricca’s letter on Friday, Jan. 26. (Editor’s note: The date was amended 1/31/34.)
Ricca, via email Monday, said he had communicated with the School Committee prior to submitting the request to RIDE. Nota said on Monday that Ricca said the School Committee had not taken a vote on the action.
“Pursuant to RI state law, as superintendent, I was acting in my role as Chief Administrative Agent to the School Committee and the duties that follow that responsibility. They were aware this was being submitted.”
It’s unclear when members of the School Committee were made aware.
Ricca said Tuesday he recognized the town’s “important financial role/control. He said, “We are fully committed to seeing this historic project through, working in partnership with the Town Council to ensure key educational components are included as it relates to our students’ specific learning needs. The clarity we are seeking through RIDE is relative to understanding our school leaders’ role per the law, as the Town Council’s ordinance recently sought to remove school officials from this project.”
According to Town Council President Mark Schwager, the first reading of the ordinance to which Ricca refers was an introduction.
“We asked the manager and solicitor to put together a preliminary draft,” he said by phone Tuesday. The second reading, which includes a public hearing, will be held Monday, Feb. 12, Schwager said there is no time limit to the public hearing – the Town Council could continue it to another evening or evenings.
For Schwager, the only member of the council to vote against denying the stage 2 application, the RIDE request and the stage 2 submission are two separate things. “I support the project recommendations,” he said, referring to the stage 2 application. “I didn’t want people to interpret this as a problem with the project. It’s a question of governance,” he said.
RIDE has 60 days to respond to Ricca’s letter. Town Solicitor Skwirz said Tuesday the issue could be “resolved quicker [perhaps through] some type of mediation or resolution by agreement. But that remains to be seen.”
Ricca said he hoped the issue would not interfere with the town’s Feb. 15 stage 2 submission.
“Our legal counsel connected at length with the Town Council’s representation last night,” he said, “and we will continue to reach out to ensure we can come to the table together to successfully submit this application and support the best interests of our students and community.”
Find all the school construction stories HERE.